In $\ce{SO3}$, 2 $p\pi-d\pi$ bonds are present. But which $d$ orbitals of sulfur take part in these $\pi$ bonds?

The answer says $d_{xy}$ and $d_{yz}$. Someone also told me that crystal field theory supports it as while splitting $d_{x^2-y^2}$ and $d_{x^2}$ are raised in energy compared to the other 3, but that theory has nothing to do here.

  • $\begingroup$ and the question is? $\endgroup$
    – permeakra
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 10:06
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    $\begingroup$ It is a long-standing myth that $d$ orbitals partake in bonding of most hypervalent compounds in any appreciable amount. There is little to no $d$-orbital participation in the bonding in $\ce{SO3}$ (see here). There are almost only $\mathrm{s}$ and $\mathrm{p}$ orbitals of sulphur involved. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 12:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Hardik I've seen this issue come up several times here on Chemistry.SE. A few other users mentioned that the supposed d-orbital participation in hypervalent molecules is a relic from the past which is contradicted by actual quantum chemical calculations. Maybe people like Martin can chime in an comment on that. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 16:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Hardik Also, have a look here. $\endgroup$
    – Philipp
    Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 16:15
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    $\begingroup$ If your textbook still needs to use d orbitals to explain the hypercoordinate molecules, then you should get a new one. For the complete molecular orbitals of $\ce{SO3}$ have a look at this question and answer. Apart from this the question is incomplete. In order to determine which orbitals take part in bonding, you have to know the position of the symmetry defining elements. Otherwise the naming of the orbitals is completely interchangeable. (@Philipp thanks for raising awareness.) $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 30, 2014 at 16:16

1 Answer 1


Unfortunately this is an issue that is, even though thoroughly disproved, still taught in many books and schools.

As Philip already pointed out in the comments: There is little to no contribution of the $d$ orbitals to the bonding in $\ce{SO3}$, as modern quantum chemical calculations prove (compare Wikipedia). This bonding scheme is a relic from a time where quantum theory was not yet widespread available. The little contribution of the $d$ orbitals (usually below 1%) we find is due to polarisation functions, that are added for a more accurate description of the molecule.

There are partial answers to the overall bonding in $\ce{SO3}$ in those two question:

But I will go a little further here. In the second post linked, you will find the result of a quantum chemical calculation for $\ce{SO3}$ on the BP86/cc-pVTZ level of theory. Here is the part of the output, containing the major contributions to the molecular orbitals (including the LUMO):

 Atomic contributions to Alpha molecular orbitals:
 Alpha occ 1 OE=-88.394 is S1-s=1.00
 Alpha occ 2 OE=-18.855 is O2-s=0.67 O3-s=0.17 O4-s=0.17
 Alpha occ 3 OE=-18.855 is O3-s=0.50 O4-s=0.50
 Alpha occ 4 OE=-18.855 is O3-s=0.33 O4-s=0.33 O2-s=0.33
 Alpha occ 5 OE=-7.922 is S1-s=1.00
 Alpha occ 6 OE=-5.945 is S1-p=1.00
 Alpha occ 7 OE=-5.941 is S1-p=1.00
 Alpha occ 8 OE=-5.941 is S1-p=1.00
 Alpha occ 9 OE=-1.113 is S1-s=0.39 O2-s=0.17 O3-s=0.17 O4-s=0.17
 Alpha occ 10 OE=-0.993 is O3-s=0.37 O4-s=0.37 S1-p=0.18
 Alpha occ 11 OE=-0.993 is O2-s=0.49 S1-p=0.18 O4-s=0.12 O3-s=0.12
 Alpha occ 12 OE=-0.585 is S1-s=0.24 O3-s=0.14 O4-s=0.14 O2-s=0.14 O2-p=0.11 O4-p=0.11 O3-p=0.11
 Alpha occ 13 OE=-0.502 is S1-p=0.55 O3-p=0.14 O4-p=0.14 O2-p=0.14
 Alpha occ 14 OE=-0.482 is O2-p=0.31 S1-p=0.20 O4-p=0.15 O3-p=0.15 O2-s=0.12
 Alpha occ 15 OE=-0.482 is O4-p=0.26 O3-p=0.26 S1-p=0.20
 Alpha occ 16 OE=-0.374 is O4-p=0.36 O3-p=0.36 O2-p=0.13
 Alpha occ 17 OE=-0.374 is O2-p=0.43 O3-p=0.21 O4-p=0.21
 Alpha occ 18 OE=-0.358 is O2-p=0.60 O4-p=0.15 O3-p=0.15
 Alpha occ 19 OE=-0.358 is O3-p=0.45 O4-p=0.45
 Alpha occ 20 OE=-0.305 is O4-p=0.32 O3-p=0.32 O2-p=0.32
 Alpha vir 21 OE=-0.141 is S1-p=0.45 O2-p=0.18 O4-p=0.18 O3-p=0.18

Now it is important to realise, that these numbers have to add up to 1 (accounting for rounding issues 0.99-1.01). So the reminding contributions are those of polarisation functions. Most notably missing is in orbital 15 the contribution of the O2-p orbital. The missing parts in 16-18 can be attributed to the diffuse and polarisation functions, i.e. higher $p$ and $d$-functions, 0.15; 0.15; 0.10; 0.10. As you can see, the involvement of $d$ orbitals in the total bonding is very little, almost negligible.

If you, however, consider $d$ orbitals to play a role in the bonding, then you have to consider, that all will participate.


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