How to Tell If Something Is Polar or Non-Polar

By Kylene Arnold
Water is a polar molecule, which dissolves only non-polar molecules.

Polarity describes the tendency of a substance to have a molecular dipole, or a positively and a negatively charged end. Polar molecules are made of elements with different electronegativities, or electron attractions, meaning that one element possesses the shared electrons more often than the other. This gives the more electronegative element a partially negative charge and the more electropositive element a partially positive charge. If these elements are arranged symmetrically, so that these charges cancel one another, the molecule is non-polar. If they are arranged asymmetrically, however, they form a polar molecule.

Stereochemical Method

Determine whether the molecule has polar or non-polar bonds. A molecule has polar bonds if there is a significant difference in electronegativity between the two elements. If the electronegativities of both elements are very similar or the same, the bonds are non-polar. If this is the case, the entire molecule is also non-polar. If it has polar bonds, you must examine the molecule further to determine whether it is polar or not.

Draw a Lewis diagram. In this kind of diagram, the molecule's constituent elements are represented by their chemical symbols surrounded by dots representing their outer electrons. When properly drawn, Lewis diagrams show the number of bonds and lone pairs, or unbonded pairs of electrons, present in the molecule.

Determine the shape of the molecule from the number of bonds and lone pairs around the central atom. For instance, two bonds and two lone pairs create a bent molecule. Four bonds and no lone pairs create a tetrahedral shape. Refer to a molecular geometry chart if you are uncertain about the shape of your molecule.

Draw a shape diagram showing how the elements are spatially arranged.

Examine this diagram to see if the polar bonds are symmetrically or a asymmetrically arranged. If the bonds are symmetrical, their polarities cancel each other and the molecule is non-polar. If the bonds are asymmetrical, so that the more electronegative element is on one end and the electropositive element is on the other, the molecule is polar.

Solution Method

Mix a liquid of unknown polarity with water, which is a polar molecule.

Allow the mixture to sit undisturbed.

Examine the mixture after the two liquids have sat together for a time. If they have not separated, but have formed a solution, the unknown liquid is polar. If there is a clear boundary between the two liquids, it is non-polar. For instance, oil, a non-polar molecule, always separates out of a water-based solution. However, vinegar, a polar substance, does not.

About the Author

Kylene Arnold is a freelance writer who has written for a variety of print and online publications. She has acted as a copywriter and screenplay consultant for Advent Film Group and as a promotional writer for Cinnamom Bakery. She holds a Bachelor of Science in cinema and video production from Bob Jones University.