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(Former) International Prototype of the Kilogram

    The former International Prototype of the Kilogram (IPK) is an artefact whose mass defined the SI unit of mass until the implementation of a revised definition of the kilogram on 20 May 2019.

    picture of the international prototype

    The IPK has been conserved at the BIPM since 1889, when it was sanctioned by the 1st General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM). It is of cylindrical form, with diameter and height of about 39 mm, and is made of an alloy of 90 % platinum and 10 % iridium. Initially the IPK had two official copies; over the years, one official copy has been replaced and four others have been added, so that there are now six official copies.

    Access to the IPK and its official copies is under the strict supervision of the International Committee for Weights and Measures (CIPM).

    The unit of mass is disseminated throughout the world by comparisons with the IPK made indirectly through a hierarchical system of mass standards. Historically the IPK has been compared to its official copies at intervals of about 40 years, with the exception of the "extraordinary campaign" carried out in 2014, which was only 22 years after the preceding one. In the intervals in between, the working standards are used to disseminate the kilogram unit to the Member States by calibrations of their "national prototypes", which are intended to serve as national standards.

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    Frequently asked questions about the International Prototype of the Kilogram

    Why are the International Prototype and its copies made of 90 % platinum/10 % iridium?

      The best mass standards must:

      • resist corrosion in order to have long-term stability.
      • have high density (to limit effects of air buoyancy),
      • conduct electricity (to eliminate parasitic forces due to static electricity),
      • have low magnetic susceptibility (to limit parasitic forces due to magnetic fields),
      • have good thermal properties and
      • have sufficient hardness (to resist wear).

      During the last quarter of the 19th century, when the first mass prototypes were constructed, the choice of materials was limited. Pure platinum has all the desirably properties except hardness. In addition, the technology for melting platinum and purifying it on an industrial scale had just been perfected. Alloying iridium with platinum was found to result in a material with improved hardness.

    How much does a prototype cost?

      Platinum is a so-called "precious metal". The cost of a prototype is roughly the cost of the metal from which it is fabricated, which varies according to market fluctuations. Fabrication is an additional expense, though considerably less than the cost of material.

    Why is it a cylinder?

      For several reasons, it is desirable to minimize the surface of a mass standard. For instance, surfaces may become contaminated by airborne dust and chemicals. One way to reduce the surface area of a metal object is by polishing it to a mirror finish. The surface of a prototype is also minimized by the choice of its geometric form. A spherical prototype would have the minimum surface area (about 62 cm2). But spheres are difficult to fabricate and inconvenient to use. The compromise between small surface area and convenience was to make the prototype in the form of a cylinder whose height is the same as its diameter. The difference in surface area between this form and a sphere is less than 15 %.

    Since the kilogram is a base unit of the International System (SI), isn't it illogical that its name starts with kilo? Shouldn't the name be changed?

      Logically, the kilogram should be called by a different name. The "grave" was an early suggestion, dating from 1793. However, the name "kilogram" (adopted in 1795) is now so embedded in our culture that changing it at this late date probably would be impractical. Proposed changes to the SI are considered by the Consultative Committee for Units (CCU). [more]

    Why is the kilogram still defined by an artefact when other base units such as the second and the metre are defined by physical constants?

      Photo of a facsimile of the International Prototype under three glass bells

      The revolutions in science that took place during the 20th century had a profound influence on technology. One need only think of how the atomic clock and the laser have influenced our daily lives. Although these new technologies have had relatively little impact on mass measurement, they nevertheless have created new ways of linking the mass of the International Prototype to the fundamental constants of physics. There are several research efforts around the world pursuing these measurements and so we can be optimistic about replacing the present artefact definition of the kilogram with a definition based on physical constants. [more]

    An article has recently appeared in the press claiming that there is a problem with the world's standard of mass. What exactly is going on?

      Very little! By definition the unit of mass, the kilogram, is the mass of an object known as the International Prototype of the Kilogram. Therefore, to know the mass in kilograms of any other object, it must be compared to the International Prototype. Except in extraordinary cases, these comparisons are indirect and rely on a chain of mass standards ultimately derived from the International Prototype. But for the highest accuracy in the chain, comparisons are made with respect to the International Prototype. For this, we use special balances known as comparators. The highest-accuracy measurements are rarely required, the last series involving a large number of national standards having been carried out between 1988 and 1992. The results of the 1988-1992 measurement campaign confirm a general trend that had already been discovered by the BIPM in the 1950s; namely that the copies are gaining slightly in mass with respect to the International Prototype. But the comparator can only measure mass differences, so perhaps the International Prototype had really lost mass with respect to the majority of copies. However, the effect is so small that it has been widely agreed by international bodies that it has no practical importance. A new measurement campaign using the International Prototype and a limited number of national standards was carried out in 2014. The results of this campaign did not confirm the long-term trend observed earlier. The mass differences between the copies and the International Prototype were found to be the same as in 1998-1992. The reason for this change in behaviour is not known.

    If this behaviour was known by 1992, why is it only now being reported?

      Those with long memories will recall that this story has already appeared several times in the popular media. The first round of articles made its way around the world in 1990 and a second round followed in 2003. But one should also distinguish between stories in the popular media, which are interesting but by their nature incomplete, and detailed articles published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. The latter are essential in order to place results before a broad scientific community. The first of the scientific articles was written by the BIPM Director of the day and published in 1991. A full report of the 1988-1992 measurements was published in 1993 and BIPM staff continue to publish review articles on this subject.

    Why has the "kilogram story" appeared again in the media?

      The 1991 paper written by the BIPM Director of the day called upon the community of measurement experts to find in due course a way of comparing the mass of the International Prototype to a fundamental constant of physics. This would be the only sure way to resolve the following question: is the International Prototype getting lighter, or are most of the copies getting heavier, or are none of these objects stable in mass with respect to the fundamental constants? The suggestion was that the link between the present kilogram unit and a fundamental constant should be made to an accuracy of 20 parts per billion (20 micrograms in one kilogram). The challenge to the measurement community was made more formally in a 1995 Resolution of the General Conference for Weights and Measures. Since 1995, a second and distinct reason for doing this work has been generally accepted: the kilogram is the last remaining base unit still defined by an artefact rather than by a fundamental constant of nature. As a consequence, the values of some fundamental constants (Planck constant, elementary charge, Avogadro constant, etc.) are currently measured in terms of the International Prototype, which has nothing fundamental about it. For this reason, many in the scientific community see an immediate benefit to defining the unit of mass, the kilogram, in terms of a fundamental constant of physics. The General Conference for Weights and Measures has reviewed this situation at its meetings in 2011 and 2014 and it is now planned to redefine the kilogram in the near future, together with the ampere, the kelvin and the mole.

      But this redefinition will only be practical for the mass community if the present kilogram can be linked to the chosen constant with sufficient accuracy. Thus the linking experiments are very important. They are also very difficult.

      Photo of a highly polished silicon sphere on display

      The BIPM is heavily committed to supporting two such experiments. One promising approach aims to link the kilogram unit to the Avogadro constant by using a nearly perfect single-crystal silicon sphere. This is a complicated experiment which is carried out in the form of an international collaboration between National Metrology Institutes and the BIPM. In 2015 a milestone was reached with the publication of the result that the link between the kilogram and the Avogadro constant had been established at the level of 20 parts per billion. The second type of linking experiment relies on a device known as a watt balance and links the kilogram to the Planck constant. This approach was pioneered at the NPL (UK), and to date the lowest uncertainty is claimed by a group working at NRC in Canada, which has achieved an accuracy of 18 parts per billion. The product of the Planck constant and the Avogadro constant is a quantity called the molar Planck constant, whose value is already known to very high accuracy. The value of the molar Planck constant thus provides a valuable self-consistency check among the experiments linking the kilogram to the Planck or Avogadro constants.

    But why are the International Prototype and its copies diverging in mass? There must be some explanation.

      During the second and third Periodic Verifications, around 1946 and 1991, it was observed that the masses of the official copies increase with respect to the International Prototype. One can see from the graph that we are talking about a change of about 0.5 micrograms per year. An effect this small is tough to study over a time period of a few years. Actually, it should not be surprising that manufactured objects or "artefacts" are not perfect. The wonder, perhaps, is that they have served us so well. The fact that this behaviour is of no practical consequence also means that it has not been studied intensively. It is interesting to note that during a calibration campaign in 2014 the long-term trend could not be confirmed and the masses of the official copies were found identical to those observed in 1991.

      Nevertheless, measurement scientists have provided some suggestions to explain the long-term drift. The International Prototype and its copies are 90% platinum and this element is known to catalyse chemical reactions; perhaps there is some model that could explain the observed phenomena (but see below). In addition, a study has shown that mercury in the atmosphere will bond to a platinum surface. Ultimately, the BIPM is putting its primary effort into supporting the linking experiments that will allow a redefinition of the kilogram in terms of a fundamental constant of physics.

      It is, nevertheless, relatively simple to rule out many hypotheses for the observed long-term behaviour of the prototypes. Quite a few such ideas are suggested to the BIPM by the public.

      1. As mentioned above, the data we obtain are derived from a mass comparator, which can only measure the difference in mass between two objects. The comparator is a special type of balance, but it operates in essentially the same way as an old-fashioned equal-arm balance (only better). We can rule out any effect that is common to both objects being compared, because the comparator simply cannot detect it. Among these undetectable effects are:
        • Gravity: Each object experiences the same pull of gravity so we do not need to account for gravity in determining the mass difference. Some of you may know that the pull of gravity and a given location undergoes small changes having a 12-hour cycle. But our results are unaffected by this effect. Remember, the kilogram is the unit of mass. Weight involves gravity but we are not measuring weight. We only require that the pull of gravity be the same for both artefacts at the time of the comparison.
        • Environment: The effect we want to explain is a change in mass difference over time between the International Prototype and its copies. A subset of the latter is the group of "official copies", which are always stored with the International Prototype in the same place and under the same conditions. Therefore, storage environment cannot explain the effect.
      2. Any viable explanation must correlate with time in order to produce an effect of 50 micrograms in 100 years. To rule out the possibility that the effect is due to the way we clean the International Prototype and its copies, or to the number of times they are used in the comparator, or to any other such operations, we can see if the data really correlates with time. The alternative would be that it correlates with the number of times a given operation is performed. While we cannot control the passage of time, we can choose the number of operations that we carry out on a particular artefact. Such tests always confirm that time is the important parameter and not the number of times a particular operation is performed.

    On three occasions, roughly 40 years apart, the mass of the official copies, the national prototypes and the working standards of the BIPM have been compared with the mass of the International Prototype (IPK). On the last of these occasions (1988-1992), 34 standards from national laboratories were cleaned with solvent and then steam-cleaned with double-distilled water before the definitive mass comparisons.

    In preparation for the redefinition of the kilogram in 2018, in 2014 an "Extraordinary Calibration" using the IPK was carried out. The objective of this work was to provide improved traceability to the IPK to those National Metrology Institutes involved in accurate determinations of the Planck constant and the Avogadro constant. During this calibration campaign the official copies and the working standards of the BIPM were compared with the mass of the IPK.

    The graph below shows the mass changes of the official copies with respect to the International Prototype, from the first comparisons in 1889 until the Extraordinary Calibration in 2014. All measurements are with respect to the International Prototype. For this reason, the mass of the International Prototype corresponds to zero on the y-axis of this graph. Until the 3rd Periodic Verification (1988-1992) relative changes of about 5 x 10–8, corresponding to 0.050 mg, have been observed in the mass of the standards official copies. This trend was not observed for the period between 1992 and 2014, during which the mass of the official copies (with respect to the IPK) has remained remarkably stable (see Metrologia 2015 52 310-316).

    graph of verifications over time

    The 2014 calibration campaign with the IPK showed an unexpected offset of 0.035 mg of the BIPM as-maintained mass unit (at that time traceable to the 3rd Periodic Verification, 1988-1992) with respect to the IPK. The evolution of this mass offset over time, since the 3rd Periodic Verification, has been mathematically modelled and corrections for previous mass calibrations certificates for the period of 2003 to early 2014 have been provided to all NMIs concerned.

    There is no reason to suspect that the mass of the International Prototype of the Kilogram is more stable than that of its official copies. The question of stability can only be answered definitively by comparison with a fundamental constant of nature (such as the Planck constant or the mass of an atom of 28Si). In 2018 the CGPM decided to redefine the kilogram in terms of the Planck constant.