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Bonding in metals and semiconductors can be described using band theory, in which a set of molecular orbitals is generated that extends throughout the solid. The primary learning objective of this Module is to describe the electrical properties of solid using band theory.

Band Theory

To explain the observed properties of metals, a more sophisticated approach is needed than the electron-sea model commonly described. The molecular orbital theory used to explain the delocalized ? bonding in polyatomic ions and molecules such as NO2?, ozone, and 1,3-butadiene can be adapted to accommodate the much higher number of atomic orbitals that interact with one another simultaneously in metals.

In a 1 mol sample of a metal, there can be more than 1024 orbital interactions to consider. In our molecular orbital description of metals, however, we begin by considering a simple one-dimensional example: a linear arrangement of n metal atoms, each containing a single electron in an s orbital. We use this example to describe an approach to metallic bonding called band theory, which assumes that the valence orbitals of the atoms in a solid interact, generating a set of molecular orbitals that extend throughout the solid.

One-Dimensional Systems

If the distance between the metal atoms is short enough for the orbitals to interact, they produce bonding, antibonding, and nonbonding molecular orbitals. The left portion of Figure shows the pattern of molecular orbitals that results from the interaction of ns orbitals as n increases from 2 to 5.

As we saw previously, the lowest-energy orbital is the completely bonding molecular orbital, whereas the highest-energy orbital is the completely antibonding molecular orbital. Molecular orbitals of intermediate energy have fewer nodes than the totally antibonding molecular orbital. The energy separation between adjacent orbitals decreases as the number of interacting orbitals increases. For n = 30, there are still discrete, well-resolved energy levels, but as n increases from 30 to a number close to Avogadro’s number, the spacing between adjacent energy levels becomes almost infinitely small. The result is essentially a continuum of energy levels, as shown on the right in Figure, each of which corresponds to a particular molecular orbital extending throughout the linear array of metal atoms. The levels that are lowest in energy correspond to mostly bonding combinations of atomic orbitals, those highest in energy correspond to mostly antibonding combinations, and those in the middle correspond to essentially nonbonding combinations.

The continuous set of allowed energy levels shown on the right in Figure is called an energy band. The difference in energy between the highest and lowest energy levels is the bandwidth and is proportional to the strength of the interaction between orbitals on adjacent atoms: the stronger the interaction, the larger the bandwidth. Because the band contains as many energy levels as molecular orbitals, and the number of molecular orbitals is the same as the number of interacting atomic orbitals, the band in Figure contains n energy levels corresponding to the combining of s orbitals from n metal atoms. Each of the original s orbitals could contain a maximum of two electrons, so the band can accommodate a total of 2n electrons. Recall, however, that each of the metal atoms we started with contained only a single electron in each s orbital, so there are only n electrons to place in the band. Just as with atomic orbitals or molecular orbitals, the electrons occupy the lowest energy levels available. Consequently, only the lower half of the band is filled. This corresponds to filling all of the bonding molecular orbitals in the linear array of metal atoms and results in the strongest possible bonding.

Multidimensional Systems

The previous example was a one-dimensional array of atoms that had only s orbitals. To extrapolate to two- or three-dimensional systems and atoms with electrons in p and d orbitals is straightforward in principle, even though in practice the mathematics becomes more complex, and the resulting molecular orbitals are more difficult to visualize. The resulting energy-level diagrams are essentially the same as the diagram of the one-dimensional example in Figure, with the following exception: they contain as many bands as there are different types of interacting orbitals. Because different atomic orbitals interact differently, each band will have a different bandwidth and will be centered at a different energy, corresponding to the energy of the parent atomic orbital of an isolated atom.

Band Gap

Because the 1s, 2s, and 2p orbitals of a period 3 atom are filled core levels, they do not interact strongly with the corresponding orbitals on adjacent atoms. Hence they form rather narrow bands that are well separated in energy (Figure These bands are completely filled (both the bonding and antibonding levels are completely populated), so they do not make a net contribution to bonding in the solid. The energy difference between the highest level of one band and the lowest level of the next is the band gap. It represents a set of forbidden energies that do not correspond to any allowed combinations of atomic orbitals.

Because they extend farther from the nucleus, the valence orbitals of adjacent atoms (3s and 3p in Figure interact much more strongly with one another than do the filled core levels; as a result, the valence bands have a larger bandwidth. In fact, the bands derived from the 3s and 3p atomic orbitals are wider than the energy gap between them, so the result is overlapping bands. These have molecular orbitals derived from two or more valence orbitals with similar energies. As the valence band is filled with one, two, or three electrons per atom for Na, Mg, and Al, respectively, the combined band that arises from the overlap of the 3s and 3p bands is also filling up; it has a total capacity of eight electrons per atom (two electrons for each 3s orbital and six electrons for each set of 3p orbitals). With Na, therefore, which has one valence electron, the combined valence band is one-eighth filled; with Mg (two valence electrons), it is one-fourth filled; and with Al, it is three-eighths filled, as indicated in Figure The partially filled valence band is absolutely crucial for explaining metallic behavior because it guarantees that there are unoccupied energy levels at an infinitesimally small energy above the highest occupied level.

Band theory can explain virtually all the properties of metals. Metals conduct electricity, for example, because only a very small amount of energy is required to excite an electron from a filled level to an empty one, where it is free to migrate rapidly throughout the crystal in response to an applied electric field. Similarly, metals have high heat capacities (as you no doubt remember from the last time a doctor or a nurse placed a stethoscope on your skin) because the electrons in the valence band can absorb thermal energy by being excited to the low-lying empty energy levels. Finally, metals are lustrous because light of various wavelengths can be absorbed, causing the valence electrons to be excited into any of the empty energy levels above the highest occupied level. When the electrons decay back to low-lying empty levels, they emit light of different wavelengths. Because electrons can be excited from many different filled levels in a metallic solid and can then decay back to any of many empty levels, light of varying wavelengths is absorbed and reemitted, which results in the characteristic shiny appearance that we associate with metals.

Requirements for Metallic Behavior

For a solid to exhibit metallic behavior,

  • it must have a set of delocalized orbitals forming a band of allowed energy levels, and
  • the resulting band must be partially filled (10%–90%) with electrons.

Without a set of delocalized orbitals, there is no pathway by which electrons can move through the solid.

Band theory explains the correlation between the valence electron configuration of a metal and the strength of metallic bonding. The valence electrons of transition metals occupy either their valence ns, (n ? 1)d, and np orbitals (with a total capacity of 18 electrons per metal atom) or their ns and (n ? 1)d orbitals (a total capacity of 12 electrons per metal atom). These atomic orbitals are close enough in energy that the derived bands overlap, so the valence electrons are not confined to a specific orbital. Metals with 6 to 9 valence electrons (which correspond to groups 6–9) are those most likely to fill the valence bands approximately halfway. Those electrons therefore occupy the highest possible number of bonding levels, while the number of antibonding levels occupied is minimal. Not coincidentally, the elements of these groups exhibit physical properties consistent with the presence of the strongest metallic bonding, such as very high melting points.


In contrast to metals, electrical insulators are materials that conduct electricity poorly because their valence bands are full. The energy gap between the highest filled levels and the lowest empty levels is so large that the empty levels are inaccessible: thermal energy cannot excite an electron from a filled level to an empty one. The valence-band structure of diamond, for example, is shown in Figure 11.7.3a11.7.3a. Because diamond has only 4 bonded neighbors rather than the 6 to 12 typical of metals, the carbon 2s and 2p orbitals combine to form two bands in the solid, with the one at lower energy representing bonding molecular orbitals and the one at higher energy representing antibonding molecular orbitals. Each band can accommodate four electrons per atom, so only the lower band is occupied. Because the energy gap between the filled band and the empty band is very large (530 kJ/mol), at normal temperatures thermal energy cannot excite electrons from the filled level into the empty band. Thus there is no pathway by which electrons can move through the solid, so diamond has one of the lowest electrical conductivities known.


What if the difference in energy between the highest occupied level and the lowest empty level is intermediate between those of electrical conductors and insulators? This is the case for silicon and germanium, which have the same structure as diamond. Because Si–Si and Ge–Ge bonds are substantially weaker than C–C bonds, the energy gap between the filled and empty bands becomes much smaller as we go down group 14 (part (b) and part (c) of Figure Consequently, thermal energy is able to excite a small number of electrons from the filled valence band of Si and Ge into the empty band above it, which is called the conduction band.

Exciting electrons from the filled valence band to the empty conduction band causes an increase in electrical conductivity for two reasons:

  1. The electrons in the previously vacant conduction band are free to migrate through the crystal in response to an applied electric field.
  2. Excitation of an electron from the valence band produces a “hole” in the valence band that is equivalent to a positive charge. The hole in the valence band can migrate through the crystal in the direction opposite that of the electron in the conduction band by means of a “bucket brigade” mechanism in which an adjacent electron fills the hole, thus generating a hole where the second electron had been, and so forth.

Consequently, Si is a much better electrical conductor than diamond, and Ge is even better, although both are still much poorer conductors than a typical metal (Figure 11.7.411.7.4).

Substances such as Si and Ge that have conductivities between those of metals and insulators are called semiconductors. Many binary compounds of the main group elements exhibit semiconducting behavior similar to that of Si and Ge. For example, gallium arsenide (GaAs) is isoelectronic with Ge and has the same crystalline structure, with alternating Ga and As atoms; not surprisingly, it is also a semiconductor. The electronic structure of semiconductors is compared with the structures of metals and insulators in Figure 11.7.511.7.5.