Orbital Hybridization: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Emily Lockhart

Emily has taught science and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson explains orbital hybridization of elements on the periodic table. Understanding of hybridization will allow you to predict how many bonds atoms can make.

Orbital Hybridization

From the stars in the night sky to all life on earth, everything around you is made up of very small units called atoms. Atoms are like the letters of an alphabet. Where letters can make up the infinite amount of spoken words, atoms compose everything in the universe.

Atoms are made up of three small particles-protons, neutrons, and electrons. The electrons give atoms many properties. This lesson will detail one property of electrons, orbital hybridization.

Orbital hybridization sounds intimidating, but you will find that orbitals are just where electrons spend most of their time, and hybridization is how the electrons move between the orbitals to allow atoms to bond together.

Structure of Atoms

In the nucleus of each atom are protons and neutrons. Buzzing around the nucleus are electrons. Electrons are 1800 times smaller than either a neutron or a proton!

What electrons lack in size, they make up for in speed. The electrons move in orbits around the nucleus at speeds so fast that scientists can't actually locate them. But they can estimate the space where electrons are found 90 percent of the time, called the electron orbital.


There are many different orbitals where electrons can be found. Early diagrams of atoms show the electrons in two dimensions, like a speeding race car around a track. This is inaccurate because electrons occupy a three dimensional space, more like an airplane around the earth.

Every orbital holds two electrons, but there may be many orbitals overlapping.

  1. The first orbital that electrons occupy is spherical. This orbital is called the s orbital.
  2. The p orbital imitates two tear drops meeting where they taper in.
  3. The d orbital looks like the p orbital, but with an inner tube around the figure eight waist.
  4. The f orbital also looks like a p orbital, but with two inner tubes.

The shapes of electron orbitals.


As atoms get bigger the electrons move further out in areas referred to as shells. These shells hold a certain number of electrons, and vary in the number and type of orbitals. The larger the atom, the more electrons, and the more shells there are around the nucleus.

For example, the smallest atom is hydrogen; it is only one electron and one proton. The electron is therefore found in the first shell around the nucleus.

Each shell is designated by a number that corresponds to the row the atom is on in the periodic table. Hydrogen and Helium are in the first row on the periodic table and the first shell. The next row of the table are in the second shell, and so forth.

Within each shell are the orbitals. The electrons fill each shell, and then occupy the next, until all electrons are accounted for. Noble gases, which are located on the far right of the periodic table, have every shell full of electrons. Shells not filled with electrons are able to bond.

Many orbitals can be contained in a shell.

Electrons can be noted in a written form called electron configuration. Hydrogen would be 1s1 to show that the electron is in the first shell and in an s orbital.

Carbon has a total of six electrons. These electrons are orbiting the nucleus, but in two different shells.

  • The first shell, written as 1s, only holds two electrons.
  • The second shell has two orbitals, s and p. 2s (second shell and s orbital), holds two more of the six electrons.
  • The last two electrons are in the 2p shell. The second shell has three p orbitals. Two electrons per orbital, times three orbitals means the second shell can hold six electrons between the three p orbitals. Carbon is written as 1s2 2s2 2p2. The second shell is not full because the p orbitals can hold up to six electrons.

Electron Spin

Recall that each orbital holds two electrons. If there are two electrons occupying an orbital, those electrons cannot form bonds. The electron pairs will also have opposite spins; this is drawn as an arrow facing up and an arrow facing down.

For example, carbon has only two electrons in the outer 2p orbitals. The second shell p orbitals can hold six electrons. The two electrons in the p orbitals are open to pairing and bonding, but carbon is able to make four bonds.

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