Last updated

Unit system SI base unit
Unit of Temperature
Named after William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

The kelvin is the base unit of temperature in the International System of Units (SI), having the unit symbol K. It is named after the Belfast-born, Glasgow University engineer and physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824–1907).


The kelvin is now defined by fixing the numerical value of the Boltzmann constant k to 1.380 649×10−23 J⋅K−1. This unit is equal to kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅K−1, where the kilogram, metre and second are defined in terms of the Planck constant, the speed of light, and the duration of the caesium-133 ground-state hyperfine transition respectively. [1] Thus, this definition depends only on universal constants, and not on any physical artifacts as practiced previously, such as the International Prototype of the Kilogram, whose mass diverged over time from the original value.

One kelvin is equal to a change in the thermodynamic temperature T that results in a change of thermal energy kT by 1.380 649×10−23 J. [2]

The Kelvin scale fulfills Thomson's requirements as an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale. It uses absolute zero as its null point.

Unlike the degree Fahrenheit and degree Celsius, the kelvin is not referred to or written as a degree. The kelvin is the primary unit of temperature measurement in the physical sciences, but is often used in conjunction with the degree Celsius, which has the same magnitude.


Lord Kelvin, the namesake of the unit Lord Kelvin photograph.jpg
Lord Kelvin, the namesake of the unit

In 1848, William Thomson, who was later identified as Lord Kelvin, wrote in his paper, On an Absolute Thermometric Scale, of the need for a scale whereby "infinite cold" (absolute zero) was the scale's null point, and which used the degree Celsius for its unit increment. Kelvin calculated that absolute zero was equivalent to −273 °C on the air thermometers of the time. [3] This absolute scale is known today as the Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale. Kelvin's value of "−273" was the negative reciprocal of 0.00366—the accepted expansion coefficient of gas per degree Celsius relative to the ice point, giving a remarkable consistency to the currently accepted value.

In 1954, Resolution 3 of the 10th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) gave the Kelvin scale its modern definition by designating the triple point of water as its second defining point and assigned its temperature to exactly 273.16 kelvins. [4]

In 1967/1968, Resolution 3 of the 13th CGPM renamed the unit increment of thermodynamic temperature "kelvin", symbol K, replacing "degree Kelvin", symbol °K. [5] Furthermore, feeling it useful to more explicitly define the magnitude of the unit increment, the 13th CGPM also held in Resolution 4 that "The kelvin, unit of thermodynamic temperature, is equal to the fraction 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water." [6]

In 2005, the Comité International des Poids et Mesures (CIPM), a committee of the CGPM, affirmed that for the purposes of delineating the temperature of the triple point of water, the definition of the Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale would refer to water having an isotopic composition specified as Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water. [7]

On 16 November 2018, a new definition was adopted, in terms of a fixed value of the Boltzmann constant. With this change the triple point of water became an empirically determined value of approximately 273.16 kelvins. For legal metrology purposes, the new definition officially came into force on 20 May 2019, the 144th anniversary of the Metre Convention. [8]

Usage conventions

According to the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, when spelled out or spoken, the unit is pluralised using the same grammatical rules as for other SI units such as the volt or ohm (e.g. "the triple point of water is not exactly 273.16 kelvins" [9] ). When reference is made to the "Kelvin scale", the word "kelvin"—which is normally a noun—functions adjectivally to modify the noun "scale" and is capitalized. As with most other SI unit symbols (angle symbols, e.g. 45° 3′ 4″, are the exception) there is a space between the numeric value and the kelvin symbol (e.g. "99.987 K"). [10] [11] (The style guide for CERN, however, specifically says to always use "kelvin", even when plural.) [12]

Before the 13th CGPM in 1967–1968, the unit kelvin was called a "degree", the same as with the other temperature scales at the time. It was distinguished from the other scales with either the adjective suffix "Kelvin" ("degree Kelvin") or with "absolute" ("degree absolute") and its symbol was °K. The latter term (degree absolute), which was the unit's official name from 1948 until 1954, was ambiguous since it could also be interpreted as referring to the Rankine scale. Before the 13th CGPM, the plural form was "degrees absolute". The 13th CGPM changed the unit name to simply "kelvin" (symbol: K). [13] The omission of "degree" indicates that it is not relative to an arbitrary reference point like the Celsius and Fahrenheit scales (although the Rankine scale continued to use "degree Rankine"), but rather an absolute unit of measure which can be manipulated algebraically (e.g. multiplied by two to indicate twice the amount of "mean energy" available among elementary degrees of freedom of the system).

2019 redefinition

In 2005 the CIPM embarked on a programme to redefine the kelvin (along with the other SI units) using a more experimentally rigorous methodology. In particular, the committee proposed redefining the kelvin such that Boltzmann constant takes the exact value 1.3806505×10−23 J/K. [14] The committee had hoped that the programme would be completed in time for its adoption by the CGPM at its 2011 meeting, but at the 2011 meeting the decision was postponed to the 2014 meeting when it would be considered as part of a larger programme. [15]

The redefinition was further postponed in 2014, pending more accurate measurements of Boltzmann's constant in terms of the current definition, [16] but was finally adopted at the 26th CGPM in late 2018, with a value of k = 1.380649×10−23 J/K. [14] [17]

From a scientific point of view, the main advantage is that this will allow measurements at very low and very high temperatures to be made more accurately, as the techniques used depend on the Boltzmann constant. It also has the philosophical advantage of being independent of any particular substance. The challenge was to avoid degrading the accuracy of measurements close to the triple point. From a practical point of view, the redefinition will pass unnoticed; water will still freeze at 273.15 K (0 °C), [18] and the triple point of water will continue to be a commonly used laboratory reference temperature.

The difference is that, before the redefinition, the triple point of water was exact and the Boltzmann constant had a measured value of 1.38064903(51)×10−23 J/K, with a relative standard uncertainty of 3.7×10−7. [17] Afterward, the Boltzmann constant is exact and the uncertainty is transferred to the triple point of water, which is now 273.1600(1) K.

Practical uses

Kelvin temperature conversion formulae
from kelvinsto kelvins
Celsius [°C] = [K]  273.15[K] = [°C] + 273.15
Fahrenheit [°F] = [K] × 95  459.67[K] = ([°F] + 459.67) × 59
Rankine [°R] = [K] × 95[K] = [°R] × 59
For temperature intervals rather than specific temperatures,
1 K = 1 °C = 95 °F = 95 °R
Comparisons among various temperature scales

Colour temperature

The kelvin is often used as a measure of the colour temperature of light sources. Colour temperature is based upon the principle that a black body radiator emits light with a frequency distribution characteristic of its temperature. Black bodies at temperatures below about 4000 K appear reddish, whereas those above about 7500 K appear bluish. Colour temperature is important in the fields of image projection and photography, where a colour temperature of approximately 5600 K is required to match "daylight" film emulsions. In astronomy, the stellar classification of stars and their place on the Hertzsprung–Russell diagram are based, in part, upon their surface temperature, known as effective temperature. The photosphere of the Sun, for instance, has an effective temperature of 5778 K.

Digital cameras and photographic software often use colour temperature in K in edit and setup menus. The simple guide is that higher colour temperature produces an image with enhanced white and blue hues. The reduction in colour temperature produces an image more dominated by reddish, "warmer" colours.

Kelvin as a unit of noise temperature

In electronics, the kelvin is used as an indicator of how noisy a circuit is in relation to an ultimate noise floor, i.e. the noise temperature. The so-called Johnson–Nyquist noise of discrete resistors and capacitors is a type of thermal noise derived from the Boltzmann constant and can be used to determine the noise temperature of a circuit using the Friis formulas for noise.

Unicode character

The symbol is encoded in Unicode at code point U+212AKELVIN SIGN. However, this is a compatibility character provided for compatibility with legacy encodings. The Unicode standard recommends using U+004BKLATIN CAPITAL LETTER K instead; that is, a normal capital K. "Three letterlike symbols have been given canonical equivalence to regular letters: U+2126OHM SIGN, U+212AKELVIN SIGN, and U+212BANGSTROM SIGN. In all three instances, the regular letter should be used." [19]

See also

Related Research Articles

Candela SI unit of luminous intensity

The candela is the base unit of luminous intensity in the International System of Units (SI); that is, luminous power per unit solid angle emitted by a point light source in a particular direction. Luminous intensity is analogous to radiant intensity, but instead of simply adding up the contributions of every wavelength of light in the source's spectrum, the contribution of each wavelength is weighted by the standard luminosity function. A common wax candle emits light with a luminous intensity of roughly one candela. If emission in some directions is blocked by an opaque barrier, the emission would still be approximately one candela in the directions that are not obscured.

The General Conference on Weights and Measures is the supreme authority of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, the inter-governmental organization established in 1875 under the terms of the Metre Convention through which Member States act together on matters related to measurement science and measurement standards. The CGPM is made up of delegates of the governments of the Member States and observers from the Associates of the CGPM. Under its authority, the International Committee for Weights and Measures (ICWM) (French: Comité international des poids et mesures executes an exclusive direction and supervision of the BIPM.

Metre Convention 1875 international treaty

The Metre Convention, also known as the Treaty of the Metre, is an international treaty that was signed in Paris on 20 May 1875 by representatives of 17 nations. The treaty created the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM), an intergovernmental organization under the authority of the General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) and the supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM), that coordinates international metrology and the development of the metric system.

International System of Units Modern form of the metric system

The International System of Units is the modern form of the metric system. It is the only system of measurement with an official status in nearly every country in the world. It comprises a coherent system of units of measurement starting with seven base units, which are the second, metre, kilogram, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela. The system allows for an unlimited number of additional units, called derived units, which can always be represented as products of powers of the base units. Twenty-two derived units have been provided with special names and symbols. The seven base units and the 22 derived units with special names and symbols may be used in combination to express other derived units, which are adopted to facilitate measurement of diverse quantities. The SI system also provides twenty prefixes to the unit names and unit symbols that may be used when specifying power-of-ten multiples and sub-multiples of SI units. The SI is intended to be an evolving system; units and prefixes are created and unit definitions are modified through international agreement as the technology of measurement progresses and the precision of measurements improves.

SI base unit One of the seven units of measurement that define the Metric System

The SI base units are the standard units of measurement defined by the International System of Units (SI) for the seven base quantities of what is now known as the International System of Quantities: they are notably a basic set from which all other SI units can be derived. The units and their physical quantities are the second for time, the metre for measurement of length, the kilogram for mass, the ampere for electric current, the kelvin for temperature, the mole for amount of substance, and the candela for luminous intensity. The SI base units are a fundamental part of modern metrology, and thus part of the foundation of modern science and technology.

Avogadro constant Fundamental physical constant (symbols: L,Nᴀ) representing the molar number of entities

The Avogadro constant (NA or L) is the proportionality factor that relates the number of constituent particles (usually molecules, atoms or ions) in a sample with the amount of substance in that sample. Its SI unit is the reciprocal mole, and it is defined as NA = 6.02214076×1023 mol−1. It is named after the Italian scientist Amedeo Avogadro.

Thermodynamic temperature Absolute measure of temperature

Thermodynamic temperature is the absolute measure of temperature and is one of the principal parameters of thermodynamics.

The Boltzmann constant is the proportionality factor that relates the average relative kinetic energy of particles in a gas with the thermodynamic temperature of the gas. It occurs in the definitions of the kelvin and the gas constant, and in Planck's law of black-body radiation and Boltzmann's entropy formula. The Boltzmann constant has the dimension energy divided by temperature, the same as entropy. It is named after the Austrian scientist Ludwig Boltzmann.

The gas constant is denoted by the symbol R or R. It is equivalent to the Boltzmann constant, but expressed in units of energy per temperature increment per mole, i.e. the pressure–volume product, rather than energy per temperature increment per particle. The constant is also a combination of the constants from Boyle's law, Charles's law, Avogadro's law, and Gay-Lussac's law. It is a physical constant that is featured in many fundamental equations in the physical sciences, such as the ideal gas law, the Arrhenius equation, and the Nernst equation.

Metrology Science of measurement and its application

Metrology is the scientific study of measurement. It establishes a common understanding of units, crucial in linking human activities. Modern metrology has its roots in the French Revolution's political motivation to standardise units in France, when a length standard taken from a natural source was proposed. This led to the creation of the decimal-based metric system in 1795, establishing a set of standards for other types of measurements. Several other countries adopted the metric system between 1795 and 1875; to ensure conformity between the countries, the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) was established by the Metre Convention. This has evolved into the International System of Units (SI) as a result of a resolution at the 11th Conference Generale des Poids et Mesures (CGPM) in 1960.

Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water A standard defining the isotopic composition of fresh water originating from ocean water

Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW) is an isotopic standard for water. Despite the name, VSMOW is pure water with no salt or other chemicals found in the oceans. The VSMOW standard was promulgated by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1968, and since 1993 continues to be evaluated and studied by the IAEA along with the European Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements and the American National Institute of Standards and Technology. The standard includes both the established values of stable isotopes found in waters and calibration materials provided for standardization and interlaboratory comparisons of instruments used to measure these values in experimental materials.

The International Temperature Scale of 1990 (ITS-90) published by the Consultative Committee for Thermometry (CCT) of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) is an equipment calibration standard for making measurements on the Kelvin and Celsius temperature scales. ITS-90 is an approximation of the thermodynamic temperature scale that facilitates the comparability and compatibility of temperature measurements internationally. It specifies fourteen calibration points ranging from 0.65±0 K to 1357.77±0 K and is subdivided into multiple temperature ranges which overlap in some instances. ITS-90 is the latest of a series of International Temperature Scales adopted by CIPM since 1927. Adopted at the 1989 General Conference on Weights and Measures, it supersedes the International Practical Temperature Scale of 1968 and the 1976 "Provisional 0.5 K to 30 K Temperature Scale". CCT has also adopted a mise en pratique in 2011. The lowest temperature covered by ITS-90 is 0.65 K. In 2000, the temperature scale was extended further, to 0.9 mK, by the adoption of a supplemental scale, known as the Provisional Low Temperature Scale of 2000 (PLTS-2000).

The standard acceleration due to gravity, sometimes abbreviated as standard gravity, usually denoted by ɡ0 or ɡn, is the nominal gravitational acceleration of an object in a vacuum near the surface of the Earth. It is defined by standard as 9.80665 m/s2. This value was established by the 3rd CGPM and used to define the standard weight of an object as the product of its mass and this nominal acceleration. The acceleration of a body near the surface of the Earth is due to the combined effects of gravity and centrifugal acceleration from the rotation of the Earth ; the total is about 0.5% greater at the poles than at the Equator.

Celsius Scale and unit of measurement for temperature

The degree Celsius, also known as the Celsius scale and centigrade scale, is a unit of temperature and a temperature scale. The degree Celsius can refer to a specific temperature on the Celsius scale or a unit to indicate a difference between two temperatures or an uncertainty. It is named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701–1744), who developed a similar temperature scale. Before being renamed to honor Anders Celsius in 1948, the unit was called centigrade, from the Latin centum, which means 100, and gradus, which means steps.

Temperature Physical quantity that expresses hot and cold

Temperature is a physical property of matter that quantitatively expresses hot and cold. It is the manifestation of thermal energy, present in all matter, which is the source of the occurrence of heat, a flow of energy, when a body is in contact with another that is colder.

Scale of temperature is a methodology of calibrating the physical quantity temperature in metrology. Empirical scales measure temperature in relation to convenient and stable parameters, such as the freezing and boiling point of water. Absolute temperature is based on thermodynamic principles, using the lowest possible temperature as the zero point and selecting a convenient incremental unit.

2019 redefinition of the SI base units Redefinition of the SI base units kilogram, ampere, kelvin, and mole

In 2019, the SI base units were redefined in agreement with the International System of Quantities, effective on the 144th anniversary of the Metre Convention, 20 May 2019. In the redefinition, four of the seven SI base units – the kilogram, ampere, kelvin, and mole – were redefined by setting exact numerical values for the Planck constant, the elementary electric charge, the Boltzmann constant, and the Avogadro constant, respectively. The second, metre, and candela were already defined by physical constants and were subject to correction to their definitions. The new definitions aimed to improve the SI without changing the value of any units, ensuring continuity with existing measurements. In November 2018, the 26th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) unanimously approved these changes, which the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM) had proposed earlier that year after determining that previously agreed conditions for the change had been met. These conditions were satisfied by a series of experiments that measured the constants to high accuracy relative to the old SI definitions, and were the culmination of decades of research.

The history of the metric system began in the Age of Enlightenment with notions of length and weight taken from natural ones, and decimal multiples and fractions of them. The system became the standard of France and Europe in half a century. Other dimensions with unity ratios were added, and it went on to be adopted by the world.

Introduction to the metric system

The metric system was developed during the French Revolution to replace the various measures previously used in France. The metre is the unit of length in the metric system and was originally based on the dimensions of the earth, as far as it could be measured at the time. The litre, is the unit of volume and was defined as one thousandth of a cubic metre. The metric unit of mass is the kilogram and it was defined as the mass of one litre of water. The metric system was, in the words of French philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, "for all people for all time".

Outline of the metric system Overview of and topical guide to the metric system

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to the metric system – various loosely related systems of measurement that trace their origin to the decimal system of measurement introduced in France during the French Revolution.


  1. "BIPM - SI Brochure". Retrieved 1 August 2019.
  2. "Mise en pratique" (PDF). BIPM.
  3. Lord Kelvin, William (October 1848). "On an Absolute Thermometric Scale". Philosophical Magazine. Archived from the original on 1 February 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  4. "Resolution 3: Definition of the thermodynamic temperature scale". Resolutions of the 10th CGPM. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1954. Archived from the original on 23 June 2007. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  5. "Resolution 3: SI unit of thermodynamic temperature (kelvin)". Resolutions of the 13th CGPM. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1967. Archived from the original on 21 April 2007. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  6. "Resolution 4: Definition of the SI unit of thermodynamic temperature (kelvin)". Resolutions of the 13th CGPM. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1967. Archived from the original on 15 June 2007. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  7. "Unit of thermodynamic temperature (kelvin)". SI Brochure, 8th edition. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1967. pp. Section Archived from the original on 26 September 2007. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  8. Draft Resolution A "On the revision of the International System of units (SI)" to be submitted to the CGPM at its 26th meeting (2018) (PDF)
  9. "Rules and style conventions for expressing values of quantities". SI Brochure, 8th edition. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1967. pp. Section Archived from the original on 16 July 2012. Retrieved 27 August 2012.
  10. "SI Unit rules and style conventions". National Institute of Standards and Technology. September 2004. Archived from the original on 5 February 2008. Retrieved 6 February 2008.
  11. "Rules and style conventions for expressing values of quantities". SI Brochure, 8th edition. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. 1967. pp. Section 5.3.3. Archived from the original on 23 September 2015. Retrieved 13 December 2015.
  12. "kelvin | CERN writing guidelines". Retrieved 19 September 2019.
  13. Barry N. Taylor (2008). "Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI)" (.PDF). Special Publication 811. National Institute of Standards and Technology. Archived (PDF) from the original on 3 June 2016. Retrieved 5 March 2011.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  14. 1 2 Ian Mills (29 September 2010). "Draft Chapter 2 for SI Brochure, following redefinitions of the base units" (PDF). CCU. Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 January 2011. Retrieved 1 January 2011.
  15. "General Conference on Weights and Measures approves possible changes to the International System of Units, including redefinition of the kilogram" (PDF) (Press release). Sèvres, France: General Conference on Weights and Measures. 23 October 2011. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 February 2012. Retrieved 25 October 2011.
  16. Wood, B. (3–4 November 2014). "Report on the Meeting of the CODATA Task Group on Fundamental Constants" (PDF). BIPM. p. 7. Archived (PDF) from the original on 13 October 2015. [BIPM director Martin] Milton responded to a question about what would happen if ... the CIPM or the CGPM voted not to move forward with the redefinition of the SI. He responded that he felt that by that time the decision to move forward should be seen as a foregone conclusion.
  17. 1 2 Newell, D B; Cabiati, F; Fischer, J; Fujii, K; Karshenboim, S G; Margolis, H S; de Mirandés, E; Mohr, P J; Nez, F; Pachucki, K; Quinn, T J; Taylor, B N; Wang, M; Wood, B M; Zhang, Z; et al. (Committee on Data for Science and Technology (CODATA) Task Group on Fundamental Constants) (29 January 2018). "The CODATA 2017 values of h, e, k, and NA for the revision of the SI". Metrologia. 55 (1): L13–L16. Bibcode:2018Metro..55L..13N. doi: 10.1088/1681-7575/aa950a .
  18. "Updating the definition of the kelvin" (PDF). International Bureau for Weights and Measures (BIPM). Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 November 2008. Retrieved 23 February 2010.
  19. "22.2". The Unicode Standard, Version 8.0 (PDF). Mountain View, CA, USA: The Unicode Consortium. August 2015. ISBN   978-1-936213-10-8. Archived (PDF) from the original on 6 December 2016. Retrieved 6 September 2015.