What is a Polyatomic Ion?

••• alexkich/iStock/GettyImages

Polyatomic ions are covalently bonded groups of atoms with a positive or negative charge caused by the formation of an ionic bond with another ion. Compounds formed from such ion combinations are called polyatomic ionic compounds, but the polyatomic ion behaves as a single unit.

Polyatomic ions and ionic compounds take part in chemical reactions such as acid-base, precipitation and displacement just like monatomic metallic ions. They dissolve in water, conduct electricity and dissociate in solution just like other ions. While they behave externally like monatomic ions, their internal structure is more complicated due to the presence of two or more atoms in the polyatomic ion.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

A polyatomic ion has two or more covalently bonded atoms that act as a single ion. The polyatomic ion forms ionic bonds with other ions and acts externally as a unit, just like monatomic ions. The resulting polyatomic ionic compounds can take part in the different types of chemical reactions, dissolving and dissociating in water. While behaving as a single unit externally, the internal structure of a polyatomic ion is more complicated because two or more atoms form internal covalent bonds.

Polyatomic Ionic Compound Sulfuric Acid

Many common chemicals are polyatomic compounds and contain polyatomic ions. For example, sulfuric acid, with the chemical formula H2SO4, contains hydrogen ions and the polyatomic sulfate anion SO4-2. The sulfur atom has six electrons in its outer shell and shares them covalently with the oxygen atoms that also have six electrons in their outer shells. The four oxygen atoms would need to have eight electrons shared between them, leaving a deficit of two. In sulfuric acid, the sulfate radical forms ionic bonds with the hydrogen atoms that donate an electron each to become hydrogen ions, H+. The sulfate radical receives the two electrons to become SO4-2.

Polyatomic Ion NH4+ or Ammonium

Most polyatomic ions contain oxygen and are negatively charged anions because the oxygen atoms attract electrons. Ammonium is one of the few positively charged polyatomic ions or cations and doesn't contain oxygen.

Nitrogen has five electrons in its outermost shell, and it has room for eight. When it shares electrons covalently with four hydrogen atoms, four electrons are available from the hydrogen or one more than is needed. When ammonium forms an ionic bond with a hydroxide OH radical, the extra electron is transferred to complete the outermost shell of the OH oxygen atom, which needs two electrons but has only one from the OH hydrogen atom. The electron from the NH4 radical is transferred to the OH radical creating an OH- ion and a NH4+ ion.

Reaction of Two Polyatomic Ionic Compounds

Like any acid and base, polyatomic ionic acids and bases react to form water and a salt in a neutralization reaction. For example, the two polyatomic compounds above, sulfuric acid and ammonium hydroxide, will react to form water and ammonium sulfate. The polyatomic ions stay together, each maintaining their covalent bonds, while the hydrogen and hydroxide ions combine to form water.

The chemical reaction takes place as follows:

2NH4OH + H2SO4 = (NH4)2SO4 +2H2O

The ammonium hydroxide in water dissociates into ammonium and hydroxide ions. The sulfuric acid dissociates into hydrogen and sulfate ions. In solution, the hydrogen and hydroxide ions combine to form water while the ammonium and sulfate ions stay in solution. If the water is removed, ammonium sulfate crystallizes out of solution as a new polyatomic ionic compound.

Related Articles

How to Figure Out the Chemical Symbol for Ions
What is an Ionic Compound?
Sulfuric Acid & Chlorine Bleach Reaction
What is a Monatomic Ion?
What Does Ion Mean?
How to Write a Chemical Compound Formula
How to Calculate Valency of Radicals
How to Calculate the Formal Charge of CoCl2
Difference Between Sulfide and Sulfite
Easy Way to Learn Chemistry Formulas
How to Remember the Charges of Polyatomic Ions
What Determines the Strength of an Acid?
How Many Valence Electrons Does Sodium Have?
How to Write the Net Ionic Equation for the Reaction...
Strong vs Weak Acids and Bases
Are Ions Hydrophobic Or Hydrophilic?
How to Memorize Ionic Compounds
What is a Double Replacement Reaction?
How to Calculate the Charge of an Ion
How to Balance Redox Equations