• Home
  • News
  • Scientists to overhaul International System of Units

Scientists to overhaul International System of Units

On Friday 16 November 2018, a vote will be made to redefine the world's definition of the kilogram, the kelvin, the mole and the ampere

  • si-units_2-(1).jpgThe definition of four of the SI units: kilogram, mole, ampere and the kelvin are set to change
  • All International System of Units (SI) will be based on fundamental constants of nature, providing stable foundation for the future of science

  • UK scientists have been responsible for many of the developments that now enable redefinition

On Friday 16 November 2018, measurement scientists from around the world will come together to witness a vote on the redefinition of the International System of Measurement (SI) units, changing the world's definition of the kilogram, the kelvin, the mole and the ampere, for ever.

Taking place at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, Paris, hosted by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), this decision will mean that all of the units are expressed in terms of constants that can be observed in the natural world.

The redefinition would bring an end to physical artefacts like the kilogram, which is currently defined as equal to the mass of the International Prototype of the Kilogram (a block of metal stored in a vault in France). This artefact is susceptible to damage and environmental factors, and is compared to its copies only once in every 40 years, making calibration to it difficult and potentially inaccurate.

This decision will ultimately lead to a more practical definition of the SI. Using unchanging standards as the basis for measurement will mean that they will remain reliable into the future. Just as redefining the second and the metre helped enable GPS navigation, the redefined SI is expected, over time, to enable new technologies we have yet to even imagine, whilst maintaining continuity for practical users.

The National Physical Laboratory (NPL), the UK's National Measurement Institute, which is responsible for measurement standards across the country, has been an international leader in the global effort to achieve redefinition. The second was redefined by the clock that Louis Essen developed at NPL, and NPL's work has played vital roles in enabling changes to the kelvin, ampere and mole. The Kibble balance, the instrument that measures the Planck constant – the natural constant that the kilogram will be defined by – was developed by the late NPL scientist Dr Bryan Kibble.

"The SI redefinition is a landmark moment in scientific measurement," said Dr JT Janssen, Director of Research at NPL. "Once implemented, all the SI units will be based on fundamental constants of nature whose value will be fixed for ever. This will pave the way for far more accurate measurements and lays a more stable foundation for science."

If approved, as is expected, the redefinition will come into effect on World Metrology Day, 20 May 2019.

In total, the definitions of four of the seven base SI units will be redefined. This will not only impact on scientific discovery and innovation, but industry and everyday society – with wide-reaching consequences in technology, retail, health and the environment, among many other sectors.

The expected new definitions:

  • The kilogram – will be defined by the Planck constant (h)
  • The ampere – will be defined by the elementary electrical charge (e)
  • The kelvin – will be defined by the Boltzmann constant (k)
  • The mole – will be defined by the Avogadro constant (NA)

Old definitions:

  • The kilogram is the unit of mass; it is equal to the mass of the international prototype of the kilogram
  • The ampere is that constant current which, if maintained in two straight parallel conductors of infinite length, of negligible circular cross-section, and placed 1 m apart in vacuum, would produce between these conductors a force equal to 2 x 10–7 newton per metre of length
  • The kelvin is the unit of thermodynamic temperature, which is the fraction 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water
  • The mole is the amount of substance of a system which contains as many elementary entities as there are atoms in 0.012 kilogram of carbon 12. When the mole is used, the elementary entities must be specified and may be atoms, molecules, ions, electrons, other particles, or specified groups of such particles.


12 Nov 2018