Chemistry - Why does sulfate have this structure?

Solution 1:

Ultimately those structures are wrong. Most of the community of chemistry educators teaches that formal charge reduction creates hypervalency. All modern research and models shows this not to be the case. You can't hybridize a d orbital and even get the proper tetrahedral geometry here. Reducing formal charges to 0 makes no real world sense, when sulfur has a measured empirical charge of around 1.7 in sulfate.

Sulfate is 4 single bonds. The bond length difference is due to the fact that the sulfur carries extra charge, as does the oxygens. This ionic like bond is of course going to be shorter than more neutral forms of S-O. Further, why would two double and two single hybrid bonds average to be the same length as a double bond?

Essentially any general chemistry solution that invokes d-orbitals as it's solution, outside of transition metal chemistry, is wrong. Sulfur hexafluoride is not in fact 6 single bonds.

Unfortunately, biochemists are not going to update their picture of phosphate anytime in the next fifty years because no one cares.

The fact that basically every science major in the world learns this wrong is abhorrent.

Solution 2:

I think an important point to mention here is that Lewis dot structures, and the octet rule, are simply models that describe experimental observables. For example, the concept of valency works well with organic molecules but was challenged by Alfred Werner in the development of bonding models that adequately described coordination compounds.

The electron-dot model of bonding is so meaningful because it can be adapted to explain various experimental observables. You can draw two perfectly reasonable electron dot structures for $\ce{SO4^{2-}}$: one with all $\ce{S-O}$ single bonds and one with two $\ce{S=O}$ double bonds (and the additional resonance structures). The question is, which electron-dot structure best represents the real structure? We can use the concept of formal charges to predict that the structure with double bonds is most likely closer to reality.

We then look at the experimental data (which is reported on the sulfate wikipedia page) for S-O single and double bond lengths. The S-O bond length in $\ce{SO4^{2-}}$ is 149 pm, which is shorter than that observed in sulfuric acid (157 pm) and very close to the gas-phase bond length of sulfur monoxide which is 148 pm.

So, at the end of the day, an electron dot structure is a type of model that describes bonding. It has some additional features such as expanded octets and formal charge that help broaden its applicability to more situations; however, models such as this one don't tell us what an atom "needs"; rather, it provides an explanation for how we observe atoms "behaving".

Solution 3:

It's a highly debated topic and seems that none has won. I thought it to be fully explainable through MOT. However, while searching I found this link. It cleared few of my misunderstanding.

Have a look. You should be able to find the answer yourself. If not leave a reply, I will update the answer accordingly.

Again thanks to Nick for citing the (3c,4e)-bond model.