The Kilogramme Will Cease To Be A Physical Entity

One of the most illuminating high school courses no doubt for many readers as much as for your scribe, was the series of physics lessons during which the SI units were explained. That glorious sense of having the order of the universe unlocked into an interlocking series of units whose definitions could all be derived in terms of a series of base units was mind-blowing in those early teen years, and even though the explanations might have been at a for-the-children level that has been blown out of the water by later tiers of learning it’s still a bedrock that will serve an engineer or scientist life-long.

The definitions of the SI base units have evolved with scientific advancement to the point at which they are no longer tied to their original physical entity definitions. Of all the base units though there is still one that has resisted the urge to move away from the physical: the kilogramme (giving it its French spelling to preserve context) is still defined in terms of a metal cylinder in a laboratory just outside Paris. Kg diehards have not much time left to cling onto their platinum-iridium alloy though, for a new definition has been adopted in which it is derived from Planck’s Constant. From next May this will become the official kilogram, at which point concerns over microscopic erosion of the metal standard become irrelevant, and an SI kilogram can be replicated by any laboratory with the means to do so.

The piece of apparatus that makes this definition possible is the Kibble balance, a balance in which the force required to overcome the effect of gravitational force on a given mass is measured in terms of the electrical power required to do so. The gravitational force at a given point can be measured accurately and is defined in terms of the other SI units, while the electrical power can be derived from a Josephson junction, a superconducting junction whose current is defined in terms of Planck’s constant. As a result, the kilogram can be measured solely in terms of the constant and other SI units, consigning the metal cylinder to history.

This high-end metrology and physics make for interesting reading, but it’s fairly obvious that the de facto kilogram we all use will not change. Our everyday measures of everything from sugar to PLA filament will be the same today as they will be next May. But that’s not the point, everyday measurements do not need the extreme accuracy and reproducibility of a laboratory. The point of it all comes in as yet unforseen applications, as an example would the ability to synchronise timing to create GPS or digital radio have been possible were the second to be still defined in terms of astronomical movements rather than atomic states?

Standard kilogramme replica picture: Japs 88 [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Measuring the Planck Constant With Lego

For nearly 130 years, the kilogram has been defined by a small platinum and iridium cylinder sitting in a vault outside Paris. Every other unit of measurement is defined by reproducible physical phenomenon; the second is a precise number of oscillations of a cesium atom, and a meter is the length light travels in 1/299792458th of a second. Only the kilogram is defined by an actual object, until NIST and the International Committee of Weights and Measures defines it as a function of the Planck constant. How do you measure the Planck constant? With a Watt balance. How do you build a Watt balance? With Lego, of course.

A Watt balance looks like a double-armed scale where one weight can be compared to another weight of known mass. Instead of using two arms, a Watt balance only has one arm, brought into balance by a current flowing through a coil. The mechanical power in the balance – brought about by whatever is on the balance plate – can then be compared to the electrical power, and eventually the Planck constant. This will soon be part of the formal definition of the kilogram, and yes, a machine to measure this can be made out of Lego.

The only major non-Lego parts in the Lego Watt balance are a few coils of wire wound around a PVC pipe and a few neodymium magnets. These are placed on both arms of the balance, and a pair of lasers are used to make sure both arms of the balance are level. Data are collected by measuring the coils through a few analog pins on a Labjack and a Phidget. Once the voltage and current induced in each coil is measured, the Wattage can be calculated, then the Planck constant, and finally how close the mass on the balance pan is to a real, idealized kilogram. Despite being made out of Lego, this system can measure a gram mass to 1% uncertainty.

The authors have included a list of Lego parts, most of which could be found in any giant tub of Lego in an 8-year-old’s closet. The only really expensive item on the BOM is a 16-bit USB DAQ; apart from that, it’s something anyone can build.

Thanks [Matt] for the tip.