Kilogram - Stability of The International Prototype Kilogram

Stability of The International Prototype Kilogram

By definition, the error in the measured value of the IPK's mass is exactly zero; the IPK is the kilogram. However, any changes in the IPK's mass over time can be deduced by comparing its mass to that of its official copies stored throughout the world, a process called "periodic verification". For instance, the U.S. owns four 90% platinum / 10% iridium (Pt‑10Ir) kilogram standards, two of which, K4 and K20, are from the original batch of 40 replicas delivered in 1884. The K20 prototype was designated as the primary national standard of mass for the U.S. Both of these, as well as those from other nations, are periodically returned to the BIPM for verification.

Note that none of the replicas has a mass precisely equal to that of the IPK; their masses are calibrated and documented as offset values. For instance, K20, the U.S.'s primary standard, originally had an official mass of 1 kg − 39 micrograms (μg) in 1889; that is to say, K20 was 39 µg less than the IPK. A verification performed in 1948 showed a mass of 1 kg − 19 µg. The latest verification performed in 1999 shows a mass precisely identical to its original 1889 value. Quite unlike transient variations such as this, the U.S.'s check standard, K4, has persistently declined in mass relative to the IPK—and for an identifiable reason. Check standards are used much more often than primary standards and are prone to scratches and other wear. K4 was originally delivered with an official mass of 1 kg − 75 µg in 1889, but as of 1989 was officially calibrated at 1 kg − 106 µg and ten years later was 1 kg − 116 µg. Over a period of 110 years, K4 lost 41 µg relative to the IPK.

Beyond the simple wear that check standards can experience, the mass of even the carefully stored national prototypes can drift relative to the IPK for a variety of reasons, some known and some unknown. Since the IPK and its replicas are stored in air (albeit under two or more nested bell jars), they gain mass through adsorption of atmospheric contamination onto their surfaces. Accordingly, they are cleaned in a process the BIPM developed between 1939 and 1946 known as "the BIPM cleaning method" that comprises lightly rubbing with a chamois soaked in equal parts ether and ethanol, followed by steam cleaning with bi-distilled water, and allowing the prototypes to settle for 7–10 days before verification. Cleaning the prototypes removes between 5 and 60 µg of contamination depending largely on the time elapsed since the last cleaning. Further, a second cleaning can remove up to 10 µg more. After cleaning—even when they are stored under their bell jars—the IPK and its replicas immediately begin gaining mass again. The BIPM even developed a model of this gain and concluded that it averaged 1.11 µg per month for the first 3 months after cleaning and then decreased to an average of about 1 µg per year thereafter. Since check standards like K4 are not cleaned for routine calibrations of other mass standards—a precaution to minimize the potential for wear and handling damage—the BIPM's model of time-dependent mass gain has been used as an "after cleaning" correction factor.


Because the first forty official copies are made of the same alloy as the IPK and are stored under similar conditions, periodic verifications using a large number of replicas—especially the national primary standards, which are rarely used—can convincingly demonstrate the stability of the IPK. What has become clear after the third periodic verification performed between 1988 and 1992 is that masses of the entire worldwide ensemble of prototypes have been slowly but inexorably diverging from each other. It is also clear that the mass of the IPK lost perhaps 50 µg over the last century, and possibly significantly more, in comparison to its official copies. The reason for this drift has eluded physicists who have dedicated their careers to the SI unit of mass. No plausible mechanism has been proposed to explain either a steady decrease in the mass of the IPK, or an increase in that of its replicas dispersed throughout the world. This relative nature of the changes amongst the world's kilogram prototypes is often misreported in the popular press, and even some notable scientific magazines, which often state that the IPK simply "lost 50 µg" and omit the very important caveat of "in comparison to its official copies". Moreover, there are no technical means available to determine whether or not the entire worldwide ensemble of prototypes suffers from even greater long-term trends upwards or downwards because their mass "relative to an invariant of nature is unknown at a level below 1000 µg over a period of 100 or even 50 years". Given the lack of data identifying which of the world’s kilogram prototypes has been most stable in absolute terms, it is equally as valid to state that the first batch of replicas has, as a group, gained an average of about 25 µg over one hundred years in comparison to the IPK.

What is known specifically about the IPK is that it exhibits a short-term instability of about 30 µg over a period of about a month in its after-cleaned mass. The precise reason for this short-term instability is not understood but is thought to entail surface effects: microscopic differences between the prototypes' polished surfaces, possibly aggravated by hydrogen absorption due to catalysis of the volatile organic compounds that slowly deposit onto the prototypes as well as the hydrocarbon-based solvents used to clean them.

It has been possible to rule out many explanations of the observed divergences in the masses of the world's prototypes proposed by scientists and the general public. The BIPM's FAQ explains, for example, that the divergence is dependent on the amount of time elapsed between measurements and not dependent on the number of times the artifacts have been cleaned or possible changes in gravity or environment.

Scientists are seeing far greater variability in the prototypes than previously believed. The increasing divergence in the masses of the world’s prototypes and the short-term instability in the IPK has prompted research into improved methods to obtain a smooth surface finish using diamond turning on newly manufactured replicas and has intensified the search for a new definition of the kilogram. See Proposed future definitions, below.

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