Organic and Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Cis/Trans Isomers

Cis/Trans isomerism is a type of stereoisomerism in which the relative positions of 2 functional groups differ between the isomers.  An isomer is cis if the 2 functional groups of interest are closer to each other, and trans if they are farther from each other.  You may find these definitions to be non-rigorous based on the subjectivity of “closer” and “farther”, but cis/trans isomers have only 2 possible relative positions for these functional groups, so “closer” and “farther” are actually obvious to identify.  It’s easier to illustrate this with some examples.

Let’s start with an organic molecule.


Image courtesy of Roland1952 on Wikimedia.

The molecule on the left is trans-1,2-dibromoethylene, and the molecule on the right is cis-1,2-dibromoethylene.  The 2 functional groups of interest are the 2 bromides, and the isomerism arises from the 2 different ways that these bromides can be positioned relative to each other.  (Notice that the 2 bromides are bonded to different carbon atoms, thus the “1,2-” designation in its name.)  Relative to the other bromide, one bromide can either be on the same of the double bond (“closer”) or on the opposite side of the double bond (“farther”).  To view the isomerism from another perspective, the double bond serves as the plane of separation, and the bromides can be on different sides of that plane (trans) or the same sides of the plane (cis).  Cis/Trans isomerism often arises in organic chemistry because of a bond with restricted rotation, and such restriction is often due to a double bond or a ring structure.  Such a bond often serves as the plane of separation on which the relative positions of the 2 functional groups can be established.


Let’s now consider a coordination complex in inorganic chemistry.

cisplatin and transplatin

Image courtesy of Anypodetos on Wikimedia.

Cisplatin and transplatin are both 4-coordinated complexes with a square planar geometry.  Their ligands are 2 chlorides and 2 ammonias.  When looking at the pictures above, it’s obvious that there are only 2 relative positions for one chloride to take compared to the other chloride – they can be either closer to each other (cis) or farther apart (trans).

Cis/Trans isomerism can also arise in 6-coordinated octahedral complexes in inorganic chemistry.


Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day: 5-Coordinated Complexes

There are 2 common geometries for 5-coordinated complexes:

  • Square pyramid: The metal centre is coordinated to 4 ligands in a plane and a 5th ligand above the plane.
  • Trigonal bipyramid: The metal centre is coordinated to 3 ligands in a plane and 2 lignads above and below the plane.

Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day: 2-Coordinated Complexes

Some coordination complexes have just 2 ligands attached to the metal centre.  These complexes have a linear geometry; this allows the greatest separation of the electron clouds in the metal-ligand bonds, which minimizes electron repulsion.

Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day: 4-Coordinated Complexes

My last lesson stated that the most common coordination number for coordination complexes is 6.  The next most common coordination number is 4, and complexes with this type of coordination adopt either the tetrahedral or the square planar geometry.  The tetrahedron is far more common than the square plane for 4-coordinated complexes, and the type of geometry depends a lot on the size and bonding strength of the ligands.  If the ligands are too big, then a tetrahedral geometry provides greater separation between ligands and minimizes electron repulsion.  If the ligands are too small, then there is room for 2 extra ligands to bond to the metal centre to form a 6-coordinated complex, and an octahedral geometry is adopted instead.

The square planar geometry is usually adopted by 4-coordinated complexes with metal ions that have a d8 electronic configuration.  Examples of such ions include Ni2+, Pd2+, Pt2+, and Au3+.

Inorganic Chemistry Lesson of the Day – Coordination Complexes

A coordination complex is a compound that consists of Lewis bases bonded to a Lewis acid in its centre.  The charge of the complex can be neutral, positive, or negative; if the complex has a positive or a negative charge, then it is called a complex ion.  The Lewis acid is almost always a metal atom or a metal ion.  The Lewis bases are called ligands, and they are often covalently bonded to the Lewis acid.  Common ligands include carbon monoxide, water, and ammonia; what unifies them is the existence of at least one lone pair of electrons in their outermost energy level, and this lone pair of electrons is donated to the Lewis acid.

Some key terminology:

  • The donor atom is the atom within the ligand that is attached to the Lewis acid centre.
  • The coordination number is the number of donor atoms in the coordination complex.
  • The denticity of a ligand is the number of bonds that it forms with the Lewis acid centre.
    • If a ligand forms 1 bond with the Lewis acid centre, then it is monodentate (sometimes called unidentate).
    • If a ligand forms multiple bonds with the Lewis acid centre, then the coordination complex is polydentate.  For example, a bidentate ligand forms 2 bonds with the Lewis acid centre.

In later Inorganic Chemistry Lessons of the Day, I will only refer to coordination complexes with metal atoms or metal ions as the Lewis acid centres.