Comparison of Valence Bond and Molecular Orbital Theory
In some respects valence bond theory is superior to molecular orbital theory. When applied to the simplest two-electron molecule, H2, valence bond theory, even at the simplest Heitler-London approach, gives a much closer approximation to the bond energy, and it provides a much more accurate representation of the behavior of the electrons as chemical bonds are formed and broken. In contrast simple molecular orbital theory predicts that the hydrogen molecule dissociates into a linear superposition of hydrogen atoms and positive and negative hydrogen ions, a completely unphysical result. This explains in part why the curve of total energy against interatomic distance for the valence bond method lies below the curve for the molecular orbital method at all distances and most particularly so for large distances. This situation arises for all homonuclear diatomic molecules and is particularly a problem for F2, where the minimum energy of the curve with molecular orbital theory is still higher in energy than the energy of two F atoms.
The concepts of hybridization are so versatile, and the variability in bonding in most organic compounds is so modest, that valence bond theory remains an integral part of the vocabulary of organic chemistry. However, the work of Friedrich Hund, Robert Mulliken, and Gerhard Herzberg showed that molecular orbital theory provided a more appropriate description of the spectroscopic, ionization and magnetic properties of molecules. The deficiencies of valence bond theory became apparent when hypervalent molecules (e.g. PF5) were explained without the use of d orbitals that were crucial to the bonding hybridisation scheme proposed for such molecules by Pauling. Metal complexes and electron deficient compounds (e.g. diborane) also appeared to be well described by molecular orbital theory, although valence bond descriptions have been made.
In the 1930s the two methods strongly competed until it was realised that they are both approximations to a better theory. If we take the simple valence bond structure and mix in all possible covalent and ionic structures arising from a particular set of atomic orbitals, we reach what is called the full configuration interaction wave function. If we take the simple molecular orbital description of the ground state and combine that function with the functions describing all possible excited states using unoccupied orbitals arising from the same set of atomic orbitals, we also reach the full configuration interaction wavefunction. It can be then seen that the simple molecular orbital approach gives too much weight to the ionic structures, while the simple valence bond approach gives too little. This can also be described as saying that the molecular orbital approach is too delocalised, while the valence bond approach is too localised.
The two approaches are now regarded as complementary, each providing its own insights into the problem of chemical bonding. Modern calculations in quantum chemistry usually start from (but ultimately go far beyond) a molecular orbital rather than a valence bond approach, not because of any intrinsic superiority in the former but rather because the MO approach is more readily adapted to numerical computations. However better valence bond programs are now available.
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