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The covalent radius, rcov, is a measure of the size of an atom that forms part of one covalent bond. It is measured either in picometres (pm) or ångströms (Å), with 1 Å = 100 pm.

In principle, the sum of the two covalent radii should equal the covalent bond length between two atoms, R(AB) = r(A) + r(B). Moreover, different radii can be introduced for single, double and triple bonds (r1, r2 and r3 below), in a purely operational sense. These relationships are certainly not exact because the size of an atom is not constant but depends on its chemical environment. For heteroatomic, A-B bonds ionic terms may enter. Often the polar covalent bonds are shorter than would be expected on the basis of the sum of covalent radii. Tabulated values of covalent radii are either average or idealized values, which nevertheless show a certain transferability between different situations, that makes them useful.

The bond lengths R(AB) are measured by X-ray diffraction (more rarely, neutron diffraction on molecular crystals). Rotational spectroscopy can also give extremely accurate values of bond lengths. For homonuclear, A-A bonds Linus Pauling took the covalent radius to be half the single bond length in the element, e.g. R(H–H, in H2) = 74.14 pm so rcov(H) = 37.07 pm: in practice, it is usual to obtain an average value from a variety of covalent compounds, although the difference is usually small. Sanderson has published a recent set of non-polar covalent radii for the main-group elements,[1] but the availability of large collections of bond lengths, which are more transferable, from the Cambridge Crystallographic Database[2] has rendered covalent radii obsolete in many situations.