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Hybrid Orbitals vs. Molecular Orbitals: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on January 2, 2024
Hybrid orbitals are combinations of atomic orbitals within an atom, while molecular orbitals are formed by the overlap of atomic orbitals from different atoms in a molecule.

Key Differences

Hybrid orbitals form when atomic orbitals mix within a single atom, creating new orbitals of equal energy. Molecular orbitals, conversely, result from the overlap of atomic orbitals from different atoms in a molecule.
Hybrid orbitals explain the shape and bonding in molecules, like sp3 in methane. Molecular orbitals describe the electron distribution in a molecule, including bonding and antibonding orbitals.
The concept of hybrid orbitals helps understand covalent bonding geometries. Molecular orbitals provide a framework for understanding molecular electronic structure and bonding strength.
Hybrid orbitals are localized on individual atoms. Molecular orbitals extend over the entire molecule and can hold electrons shared between atoms.
Examples of hybrid orbitals include sp, sp2, and sp3. Molecular orbitals can be seen in molecular orbital diagrams for molecules like H2 or O2.

Comparison Chart


Mix of atomic orbitals within one atom
Overlap of atomic orbitals from different atoms

Role in Molecules

Determine bonding geometries and angles
Describe electron distribution and bonding in molecules


Localized on individual atoms
Extend over the entire molecule

Types of Orbitals Involved

Atomic orbitals like s and p
Bonding and antibonding orbitals


Sp3 hybridization in methane
Sigma and pi molecular orbitals in diatomic molecules

Hybrid Orbitals and Molecular Orbitals Definitions

Hybrid Orbitals

Orbitals formed by mixing atomic orbitals in an atom.
In water, oxygen's sp3 hybrid orbitals form the bent shape.

Molecular Orbitals

Integral to molecular orbital theory.
The molecular orbitals in CO2 explain its linear shape.

Hybrid Orbitals

Aids in explaining molecular shapes and bond angles.
The sp2 hybrid orbitals in ethene create a trigonal planar shape.

Molecular Orbitals

Extend over the entire molecule.
Molecular orbitals in benzene contribute to its resonance stability.

Hybrid Orbitals

Equal in energy and symmetrically arranged.
Sp3 hybrid orbitals in methane are tetrahedrally arranged.

Molecular Orbitals

Describe the electron distribution in a molecule.
Pi molecular orbitals in O2 determine its magnetic properties.

Hybrid Orbitals

Key to understanding covalent bond formations.
The sp hybrid orbitals in acetylene allow for a linear structure.

Molecular Orbitals

Orbitals formed from the overlap of atomic orbitals in a molecule.
The sigma molecular orbital in H2 is formed by s-orbital overlap.

Hybrid Orbitals

Contains a combination of s and p orbitals.
Sp2 hybrid orbitals in benzene contribute to its planar structure.

Molecular Orbitals

Can be bonding or antibonding.
Bonding molecular orbitals lower the energy of a molecule.


What are hybrid orbitals?

Hybrid orbitals are formed when atomic orbitals mix to form new orbitals, which are used in bonding in molecules.

Why do atoms form hybrid orbitals?

Atoms form hybrid orbitals to achieve a more stable electron configuration during bonding.

Are hybrid orbitals real?

They are a theoretical construct used to explain molecular shapes and bonding patterns.

Is hybridization applicable to all molecules?

No, it's mainly applicable to covalently bonded molecules.

What is the shape of sp3 hybrid orbitals?

Sp3 hybrid orbitals have a tetrahedral shape.

Can hybrid orbitals form pi bonds?

No, pi bonds are formed by unhybridized p orbitals.

What types of hybrid orbitals are common?

The most common types are sp, sp2, and sp3.

Can d orbitals be involved in hybridization?

Yes, d orbitals can be involved, especially in transition metals, leading to sp3d and sp3d2 hybrids.

How are hybrid orbitals formed?

They form by the combination of different atomic orbitals (s, p, d) within the same atom.

What are molecular orbitals?

Molecular orbitals are the quantum states of electrons in a molecule where the electrons are delocalized over the entire molecule.

How are molecular orbitals formed?

They form from the linear combination of atomic orbitals (LCAO) when atoms bond together.

Can molecular orbitals predict molecular shape?

Yes, they can give insights into the shape and bonding characteristics of a molecule.

Do all electrons in a molecule occupy molecular orbitals?

Yes, all electrons in a molecule are considered to be in molecular orbitals.

What is the difference between bonding and antibonding molecular orbitals?

Bonding orbitals stabilize the molecule, whereas antibonding orbitals destabilize it.

What is the HOMO-LUMO gap?

It's the energy difference between the highest occupied molecular orbital (HOMO) and the lowest unoccupied molecular orbital (LUMO).

How does molecular orbital theory differ from valence bond theory?

Molecular orbital theory considers electrons delocalized over the entire molecule, while valence bond theory focuses on localized electron pairs between atoms.

How does hybridization affect molecular geometry?

Hybridization determines the arrangement of electron pairs around a central atom, thus defining molecular geometry.

What is the significance of the molecular orbital theory?

It provides a more comprehensive understanding of chemical bonding, especially in molecules where hybridization is inadequate.

How do molecular orbitals relate to chemical properties?

They help explain properties like magnetism, reactivity, and color in compounds.

Are molecular orbitals always symmetrical?

No, their symmetry depends on the symmetry of the combining atomic orbitals.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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