Physical Properties

Consider some common substances: sodium chloride (), chlorine gas (), water () and diamond (). At room temperature, they all appear very different. For example, they have different states of matter: sodium chloride and diamond are both solids, whereas chlorine is a gas and water is a liquid. State of matter is an example of a physical property.

Physical Properties Physical Properties

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Table of contents

    A physical property is a characteristic that can be seen or measured without changing the chemical identity of the substance.

    Let’s break this down. If you heat a substance to its melting point, it will turn from a solid into a liquid. Take ice, for example (See States of Matter for more information). When ice melts, it forms liquid water. It has changed its state of matter. However, its chemical identity is still the same - both water and ice contain just molecules.

    This means that state of matter is a physical property, as is temperature. Other examples include mass and density. In contrast, radioactivity and toxicity are examples of chemical properties.

    A chemical property is a characteristic we can observe when a substance reacts.

    Physical properties of crystal structures

    We now know that state of matter is a physical property, and we know that we can change a substance’s state by heating it. A solid’s particles will increase in kinetic energy, moving faster and faster until enough energy is supplied to break some of the bonds between them. This happens at a certain temperature - the melting point.

    But different substances have very different melting points. Sodium chloride melts at 800 °C whereas chlorine gas will remain a liquid until -101.5 °C! This is just one example of their differing physical properties.

    What causes these differences? To understand this, we need to look at different types of crystal structures as well as their forces and how they bond.

    What is a crystal?

    A crystal is a solid formed of a regular arrangement of particles held together by forces of attraction.

    These forces could be intramolecular, such as covalent, metallic, or ionic bonds, or intermolecular, such as van der Waals forces, permanent dipole-dipole forces or hydrogen bonds. We’re interested in four different crystal types:

    • Molecular crystals.
    • Giant covalent crystals.
    • Giant ionic crystals.
    • Giant metallic crystals

    Molecular crystals

    Molecular crystals are made up of simple covalent molecules held together by intermolecular forces. Although strong covalent bonds within each molecule hold the atoms together, the intermolecular forces between molecules are weak and easy to overcome. This gives molecular crystals low melting and boiling points. They are also soft and break easily. An example is chlorine, . Although each chlorine molecule is made up of two covalently bonded chlorine atoms, the only forces between individual molecules are weak van der Waals forces. These do not require much energy to overcome, so chlorine is a gas at room temperature.

    Physical Properties, chlorine crystal, StudySmarterA chlorine crystal, made of many chlorine molecules. Each molecule is made from two chlorine atoms held together by a strong covalent bond. However, the only forces between molecules are weak intermolecular

    Another type of physical property is conductivity. Molecular crystals can’t conduct electricity - there are no charged particles free to move within the structure.

    Giant covalent crystals

    Giant covalent structures are also known as macromolecules.

    A macromolecule is a very large molecule made up of hundreds of atoms covalently bonded together.

    Like molecular crystals, macromolecules contain covalent bonds, but in this case all the crystal’s particles are atoms covalently bonded together. Because these bonds are so strong, macromolecules are extremely hard and have high melting and boiling points.

    An example is diamond (explore more in Carbon Structures). Diamond consists of carbon atoms, each one joined to four other atoms with covalent bonds. Melting diamond would involve breaking these extremely strong bonds. In fact, diamond doesn’t melt at all under atmospheric pressure.

    Like molecular crystals, giant covalent crystals can’t conduct electricity, as there are no charged particles free to move within the structure.

    Physical Properties, diamond crystal, StudySmarterA 3D representation of a diamond

    Giant metallic crystals

    When metals bond, they form giant metallic crystals. These consist of a lattice arrangement of positively charged metal ions in a sea of negative delocalised electrons. There is strong electrostatic attraction between the ions and the electrons, holding the crystal together. This gives metals high melting and boiling points.

    Because they contain a free-moving sea of delocalised electrons, metals are able to conduct electricity. This is one way of distinguishing them from other structures.

    Physical Properties, metallic bonding, StudySmarterMetallic bonding. There is a strong electrostatic attraction between the positive metal ions and the delocalised electrons.

    Giant ionic crystals

    Like metals, ionic lattices contain positive ions. But in this case, they are ionically bonded to negative ions with strong electrostatic attraction. Again, this makes ionic compounds hard and strong with high melting and boiling points.

    In a solid state, the ions in ionic crystals are held together tightly in ordered rows. They cannot move out of position and only vibrate on the spot. However, when molten or in solution, the ions can move about freely and so carry a charge. Therefore, only molten or aqueous ionic crystals are good conductors of electricity.

    Physical Properties, ionic crystal, StudySmarterAn ionic lattice.

    Comparing properties of structures

    Let’s go back to our examples. Sodium chloride, , has a very high melting point. We now know that this is because it is an ionic crystal and its particles are held in position by strong ionic bonds. These require a lot of energy to overcome. We must heat sodium chloride a lot in order for it to melt. In contrast, solid chlorine, , forms a molecular crystal. Its molecules are held together by weak intermolecular forces which don’t require much energy to overcome. Therefore, chlorine has a much lower melting point than sodium chloride.

    Physical Properties, sodium chloride structure, StudySmarterSodium chloride, NaCl. The lines represent the strong ionic bonds between oppositely charged ions. Compare this to the chlorine crystal earlier in the article, which only has weak intermolecular forces between its

    The following table should help you summarise the differences in physical properties between the four types of crystal structure we’ve learnt about.

    Physical Properties, physical properties compare table, StudySmarterA table comparing the physical properties of different crystal structures.StudySmarter Originals

    For more information on any of the types of bonding mentioned above, check out Covalent and Dative Bonding, Ionic Bonding and Metallic Bonding.

    Physical properties of water

    Like chlorine, solid water forms a molecular crystal. But unlike chlorine, water is liquid at room temperature. To understand why, let’s compare it to another simple covalent molecule, ammonia, . They both have similar relative masses. They are both molecular solids and also both form hydrogen bonds. We could therefore predict that they have similar melting points. Surely they experience similar intermolecular forces between their molecules? But in actual fact, water has a much higher melting point than ammonia. It requires more energy to overcome the forces between its particles. Water is also less dense as a solid than as a liquid, which you should know is unusual for any substance. Let's explore why. (If you aren’t familiar with hydrogen bonding, we’d recommend looking at Intermolecular Forces before continuing.)

    Take a look at a water molecule. It contains one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. Each oxygen atom has two lone pairs of electrons. This means that water can form up to four hydrogen bonds - one using each hydrogen atom and one using each of oxygen’s lone pairs of electrons.

    Physical Properties, water hydrogen bonding, StudySmarterEach water molecule can form up to four hydrogen bonds.

    When water is a liquid, the molecules are constantly moving about. The hydrogen bonds between water molecules are constantly being broken and reformed. In fact, not all of the molecules have all four hydrogen bonds. However, when water is solid ice, all of its molecules form the maximum number of hydrogen bonds possible. This forces them into a lattice with all the molecules in a certain orientation, which affects water’s density and melting and boiling points.


    Water is less dense as a solid than a liquid. As we mentioned earlier, this is unusual. This is because the arrangement and orientation of the water molecules in their solid lattice pushes them slightly further apart than in a liquid.

    Melting point

    Water has a relatively high melting point compared to other simple covalent molecules with a similar relative mass. This is because its multiple hydrogen bonds between molecules require a lot of energy to overcome.

    Physical Properties, water ice structure hydrogen bonding, StudySmarterHydrogen bonding in ice and liquid water. Note that each water molecule in ice forms four hydrogen bonds. This pushes the molecules apart into a regular lattice.

    If we compare the structures of water and ammonia, we can explain the difference seen in melting points. Ammonia can only form two hydrogen bonds - one with the single lone pair of electrons on its nitrogen atom, and the other with one of its hydrogen atoms.

    Physical Properties, ammonia hydrogen bonding, StudySmarterHydrogen bonding between ammonia molecules. Note that each molecule can form a maximum of two hydrogen bonds. StudySmarter Originals

    However, we now know that water can form four hydrogen bonds. Because water has twice as many hydrogen bonds as ammonia, it has a much higher melting point. The following table summarises the differences between these two compounds.

    Physical properties, ammonia water table compare, StudySmarterA table comparing water and ammonia. StudySmarter Originals

    Physical Properties - Key takeaways

    • A physical property is one we can observe without changing the chemical identity of a substance. Physical properties include state of matter, temperature, mass, and conductivity.

    • There are four different types of crystal structure. Their physical properties are affected by the bonding between their particles.

    • Giant ionic, metallic, and covalent crystals have high melting points whereas molecular crystals have low melting points. This is because of their bonding.

    • Water displays unusual physical properties compared to similar substances due to the nature of its hydrogen bonding.

    Frequently Asked Questions about Physical Properties

    What is a physical property?

    A physical property is a characteristic we can observe without changing the chemical identity of a substance.

    Is density a physical property?

    Density is a physical property because we can find it without reacting the substance and changing its chemical identity. To find density we simply need to measure a substance’s mass and volume.

    Is electrical conductivity a physical property?

     Electrical conductivity is a physical property because we can observe it without changing the substance chemically. To see if a substance conducts electricity or not, we connect it to a circuit with a voltmeter. This doesn’t cause a change in its chemical identity. 

    Is heat conductivity a physical property?

    Heat conductivity is a physical property because we can observe it without changing the substance chemically. Heat conductivity is simply a measure of how well a substance conducts heat, and we can observe it without changing the substance’s chemical identity.

     Is tendency to corrode a physical property?

    Tendency to corrode is a chemical property because it involves a reaction and change of chemical state. When a substance corrodes, it reacts with its environment to form more stable compounds such as oxides. This changes the chemical identity of the substance.

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    Team Physical Properties Teachers

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