Linear combination of atomic orbitals (LCAO) is a simple method of quantum chemistry that yields a qualitative picture of the molecular orbitals (MOs) in a molecule. Let us consider H again. The approximation embodied in the LCAO approach is based on the notion that when the two protons are very far apart, the electron in its ground state will be a orbital of one of the protons. Of course, we do not know which one, so we end up with a Schrödinger cat-like state in which it has some probability to be on one or the other.

As with the HF method, we propose a guess of the true wave function
for the electron

where is a hydrogen orbital centered on proton A and is a hydrogen orbital centered on proton B. Recall . The positions and are given simply by the vectors

The explicit forms of and are

Now, unlike the HF approach, in which we try to optimize the shape of the orbitals themselves, in the LCAO approach, the shape of the orbital is already given. What we try to optimize here are the coefficients and that determine the amplitude for the electron to be found on proton A or proton B.

The guess wave function
is not normalized as
we have written down. Thus, our guess of the ground-state energy is
given by

where is the electron's volume element, and is the electronic Hamiltonian (minus the nuclear-nuclear repulsion :

(we will account for the nuclear-nuclear repulsion later when we consider the energies). Consider the denominator first:

Now, the wave function of hydrogen is normalized so

In the cross term, however, the integral

is not 1 because the orbitals are centered on different protons (it is only one if the two protons sit right on top of each other, which is not possible). It is also not 0 unless the protons are very far apart. We can calculate the integral analytically, however, it is not that important to do so since there is no dependence on or . Let us just denote this integral as . We know that and this is good enough for now. Thus, the denominator is simply

As for the numerator

where we have defined a bunch of integrals I'm too lazy to do as

Again, these are integrals we can do, but it is not that important, so we will just keep the shorthand notation. Note that since the two nuclei are the same (they are both protons), we expect . Since these are equal, we will just call them both . Hence, the guess energy becomes

which is just a ratio of two simple polynomials. Since we know that , where is the true ground-state energy, we can minimize with respect to the two coefficients and . Thus, we need to take two derivatives and set them both to 0:

Defining the denominator simply as , where , the two derivatives are

Thus, we have two algebraic equations in two unknowns and . In fact, these will not determine and uniquely because they are redundant. However, we also have the normalization of as a third condition, so we have enough information to determine the coefficients absolutely.

The equations can be solved as follows: First we write them as

We now divide one equation by the other, which yields

Since we cannot solve for and independently, we choose, instead, to solve for the ratio . Dividing both sides of the above by equation by yields

To solve for , we cross multiply:

Multiplying this out, we obtain

which implies .

Thus, we have two solutions: or . So, to simplify the
notation, Let (drop the A subscript). We, therefore, have two possible
guess wave functions:

The constant can be determined for each guess wave function by imposing the normalization condition. For , we have

Similarly, one can show that for , .

Let us now see how the two approximate solutions lead to bonding and antibonding orbitals.
Consider first
. We will add these two wave functions pictorally, keeping
in mind that is a spherically symmetric orbital with an exponential decay. Thus,

The figure below shows the orbitals that result from the addition or subtraction for or . In the bottom left panel, we show the two orbitals centered on protons A and B in . In the center on the left, the result of adding them together is shown. It should be clear from the figure that is a bonding orbital that is an approximation to the true orbital that is the true ground state. This approximation is often denoted . On the other hand, the orbital is the

Concerning the energies, the figure below shows the two
lowest energies curves as functions of , comparing the
results from the exact solution for H and the LCAO
approximation. Note, in particular, that, in accordance
with the variational principle, the exact energy curve
for the ground state is always lower than the LCAO approximation.