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In engineering and science, dimensional analysis is the analysis of the relationships between different physical quantities by identifying their base quantities (such as length, mass, time, and electric charge) and units of measure (such as miles vs. kilometers, or pounds vs. kilograms) and tracking these dimensions as calculations or comparisons are performed. The conversion of units from one dimensional unit to another is often somewhat complex. Dimensional analysis, or more specifically the factor-label method, also known as the unit-factor method, is a widely used technique for such conversions using the rules of algebra.[1]Fundamentals%20of%20Chemistry]][2][3]

The concept of physical dimension was introduced by Joseph Fourier in 1822.[4] Physical quantities that are of the same kind (also called commensurable) (e.g., length or time or mass) have the same dimension and can be directly compared to other physical quantities of the same kind (i.e., length or time or mass, resp.), even if they are originally expressed in differing units of measure (such as yards and meters). If physical quantities have different dimensions (such as length vs. mass), they cannot be expressed in terms of similar units and cannot be compared in quantity (also called incommensurable). For example, asking whether a kilogram is larger than an hour is meaningless.

Any physically meaningful equation (and any inequality) will have the same dimensions on its left and right sides, a property known as dimensional homogeneity. Checking for dimensional homogeneity is a common application of dimensional analysis, serving as a plausibility check on derived equations and computations. It also serves as a guide and constraint in deriving equations that may describe a physical system in the absence of a more rigorous derivation.

Concrete numbers and base units

Many parameters and measurements in the physical sciences and engineering are expressed as a concrete number – a numerical quantity and a corresponding dimensional unit. Often a quantity is expressed in terms of several other quantities; for example, speed is a combination of length and time, e.g. 60 miles per hour or 1.4 kilometers per second. Compound relations with "per" are expressed with division, e.g. 60 mi/1 h. Other relations can involve multiplication (often shown with a centered dot or juxtaposition), powers (like m2 for square meters), or combinations thereof.

A set of base units for a system of measurement is a conventionally chosen set of units, none of which can be expressed as a combination of the others, and in terms of which all the remaining units of the system can be expressed.[5] For example, units for length and time are normally chosen as base units. Units for volume, however, can be factored into the base units of length (m3), thus they are considered derived or compound units.

Sometimes the names of units obscure the fact that they are derived units.

Percentages are dimensionless quantities, since they are ratios of two quantities with the same dimensions.

Taking a derivative with respect to a quantity adds the dimension of the variable one is differentiating with respect to, in the denominator.

  • position (x) has the dimension L (length);
  • derivative of position with respect to time (dx/dt, velocity) has dimension LT−1 – length from position, time due to the derivative;
  • the second derivative (d2x/t2 = d (dx/dt) / dt, acceleration) has dimension LT−2.

In economics, one distinguishes between stocks and flows: a stock has units of "units" (say, widgets or dollars), while a flow is a derivative of a stock, and has units of "units/time" (say, dollars/year).

In some contexts, dimensional quantities are expressed as dimensionless quantities or percentages by omitting some dimensions.

Conversion factor

In dimensional analysis, a ratio which converts one unit of measure into another without changing the quantity is called a conversion factor. For example, kPa and bar are both units of pressure, and 100 kPa = 1 bar. The rules of algebra allow both sides of an equation to be divided by the same expression, so this is equivalent to 100 kPa / 1 bar = 1. Since any quantity can be multiplied by 1 without changing it, the expression "100 kPa / 1 bar" can be used to convert from bars to kPa by multiplying it with the quantity to be converted, including units. For example, 5 bar × 100 kPa / 1 bar = 500 kPa because 5 × 100 / 1 = 500, and bar/bar cancels out, so 5 bar = 500 kPa.

Dimensional homogeneity

The most basic rule of dimensional analysis is that of dimensional homogeneity.[6]

However, the dimensions form an abelian group under multiplication, so:

For example, it makes no sense to ask whether 1 hour is more, the same, or less than 1 kilometer, as these have different dimensions, nor to add 1 hour to 1 kilometer.

The rule implies that in a physically meaningful expression only quantities of the same dimension can be added, subtracted, or compared. For example, if mman, mrat and Lman denote, respectively, the mass of some man, the mass of a rat and the length of that man, the dimensionally homogeneous expression mman + mrat is meaningful, but the heterogeneous expression mman + Lman is meaningless. However, mman/L2man is fine. Thus, dimensional analysis may be used as a sanity check of physical equations: the two sides of any equation must be commensurable or have the same dimensions.

This has the implication that most mathematical functions, particularly the transcendental functions must have a dimensionless quantity, a pure number, as the argument and must return a dimensionless number as a result. This is clear because many transcendental functions can be expressed as an infinite power series with dimensionless coefficients.

All powers of x must have the same dimension for the terms to be commensurable. But if x is not dimensionless, then the different powers of x will have different, incommensurable dimensions. However, power functions including root functions may have a dimensional argument and will return a result having dimension that is the same power applied to the argument dimension. This is because power functions and root functions are, loosely, just an expression of multiplication of quantities.

Even when two physical quantities have identical dimensions, it may nevertheless be meaningless to compare or add them.

To compare, add, or subtract quantities with the same dimensions but expressed in different units, the standard procedure is first to convert them all to the same units.

A related principle is that any physical law that accurately describes the real world must be independent of the units used to measure the physical variables.[7] For example, Newton's laws of motion must hold true whether distance is measured in miles or kilometers. This principle gives rise to the form that conversion factors must take between units that measure the same dimension: multiplication by a simple constant. It also ensures equivalence; for example, if two buildings are the same height in feet, then they must be the same height in meters.

The factor-label method for converting units

The factor-label method is the sequential application of conversion factors expressed as fractions and arranged so that any dimensional unit appearing in both the numerator and denominator of any of the fractions can be cancelled out until only the desired set of dimensional units is obtained.

After canceling out any dimensional units that appear both in the numerators and denominators of the fractions in the above equation, the NOx concentration of 10 ppmv converts to mass flow rate of 24.63 grams per hour.

The factor-label method can also be used on any mathematical equation to check whether or not the dimensional units on the left hand side of the equation are the same as the dimensional units on the right hand side of the equation.

For example, check the Universal Gas Law equation of PV = nRT, when:

  • the pressure P is in pascals (Pa)
  • the volume V is in cubic meters (m3)
  • the amount of substance n is in moles (mol)
  • the universal gas law constant R
  • the temperature T is in kelvins (K)

As can be seen, when the dimensional units appearing in the numerator and denominator of the equation's right hand side are cancelled out, both sides of the equation have the same dimensional units.

For example, the freezing point of water is 0 °C and 32 °F, and a 5 °C change is the same as a 9 °F change.

Hence, to convert the numerical quantity value of a temperature T[F] in degrees Fahrenheit to a numerical quantity value T [C] in degrees Celsius, this formula may be used:

To convert T[C] in degrees Celsius to T [F] in degrees Fahrenheit, this formula may be used:


Dimensional analysis is most often used in physics and chemistry – and in the mathematics thereof – but finds some applications outside of those fields as well.

In finance, economics, and accounting, dimensional analysis is most commonly referred to in terms of the distinction between stocks and flows. More generally, dimensional analysis is used in interpreting various financial ratios, economics ratios, and accounting ratios.

  • For example, the P/E ratio has dimensions of time (units of years), and can be interpreted as "years of earnings to earn the price paid".
  • In economics, debt-to-GDP ratio also has units of years (debt has units of currency, GDP has units of currency/year).
  • More surprisingly, bond duration also has units of years, which can be shown by dimensional analysis, but takes some financial intuition to understand.
  • Velocity of money has units of 1/years (GDP/money supply has units of currency/year over currency): how often a unit of currency circulates per year.
  • Interest rates are often expressed as a percentage, but more properly percent per annum, which has dimensions of 1/years.

In fluid mechanics, dimensional analysis is performed in order to obtain dimensionless Pi terms or groups. According to the principles of dimensional analysis, any prototype can be described by a series of these terms or groups that describe the behaviour of the system. Using suitable Pi terms or groups, it is possible to develop a similar set of Pi terms for a model that has the same dimensional relationships.[8] In other words, Pi terms provide a shortcut to developing a model representing a certain prototype. Common dimensionless groups in fluid mechanics include:

  • Reynolds number (Re), generally important in all types of fluid problems: .
  • Froude number (Fr), modeling flow with a free surface:
  • Euler number (Eu), used in problems in which pressure is of interest:
  • Mach number (M), important high speed flows where the velocity approaches or exceeds the local speed of sound: where: c is the local speed of sound.


The origins of dimensional analysis have been disputed by historians.[9][10] The 19th-century French mathematician Joseph Fourier is generally credited with having made important contributions[11]F = ma variables. This led to the conclusion that meaningful laws must be homogeneous equations in their various units of measurement, a result which was eventually formalized in the Buckingham π theorem. However, the first application of dimensional analysis has been credited to the Italian scholar François Daviet de Foncenex (1734–1799). It was published in 1761, 61 years before the publication of Fourier's work.[10]

James Clerk Maxwell played a major role in establishing modern use of dimensional analysis by distinguishing mass, length, and time as fundamental units, while referring to other units as derived.[12] Although Maxwell defined length, time and mass to be "the three fundamental units", he also noted that gravitational mass can be derived from length and time by assuming a form of Newton's law of universal gravitation in which the gravitational constant G is taken as unity, thereby defining M = L3T−2.[13] l then determined that the dimensions of an electrostatic unit of charge were Q = L3/2M1/2T−1,[14] which, after substituting his M = L3T−2 equation for mass, results in charge having the same dimensions as mass, viz. Q = L3T−2.

Dimensional analysis is also used to derive relationships between the physical quantities that are involved in a particular phenomenon that one wishes to understand and characterize.

The original meaning of the word dimension, in Fourier's Theorie de la Chaleur, was the numerical value of the exponents of the base units. For example, acceleration was considered to have the dimension 1 with respect to the unit of length, and the dimension −2 with respect to the unit of time.[16] This was slightly changed by Maxwell, who said the dimensions of acceleration are LT−2, instead of just the exponents.[17]

Mathematical examples

The Buckingham π theorem describes how every physically meaningful equation involving n variables can be equivalently rewritten as an equation of nm dimensionless parameters, where m is the rank of the dimensional matrix. Furthermore, and most importantly, it provides a method for computing these dimensionless parameters from the given variables.

A dimensional equation can have the dimensions reduced or eliminated through nondimensionalization, which begins with dimensional analysis, and involves scaling quantities by characteristic units of a system or natural units of nature. This gives insight into the fundamental properties of the system, as illustrated in the examples below.

The dimension of a physical quantity can be expressed as a product of the basic physical dimensions such as length, mass and time, each raised to a rational power. The dimension of a physical quantity is more fundamental than some scale unit used to express the amount of that physical quantity. For example, mass is a dimension, while the kilogram is a particular scale unit chosen to express a quantity of mass. Except for natural units, the choice of scale is cultural and arbitrary.

There are many possible choices of basic physical dimensions.

where a, b, c, d, e, f, g are the dimensional exponents. Other physical quantities could be defined as the base quantities, as long as they form a linearly independent basis. For instance, one could replace the dimension of electrical current (I) of the SI basis with a dimension of electric charge (Q), since Q = IT.

As examples, the dimension of the physical quantity speed v is

and the dimension of the physical quantity force F is

The unit chosen to express a physical quantity and its dimension are related, but not identical concepts.

There are also physicists that have cast doubt on the very existence of incompatible fundamental dimensions of physical quantity,[19] although this does not invalidate the usefulness of dimensional analysis.

The dimensions that can be formed from a given collection of basic physical dimensions, such as M, L, and T, form an abelian group: The identity is written as 1; L0 = 1, and the inverse to L is 1/L or L−1. L raised to any rational power p is a member of the group, having an inverse of L−por 1/Lp. The operation of the group is multiplication, having the usual rules for handling exponents (Ln× Lm= Ln+m).

This group can be described as a vector space over the rational numbers, with for example dimensional symbol MiLjTk corresponding to the vector (i, j, k). When physical measured quantities (be they like-dimensioned or unlike-dimensioned) are multiplied or divided by one other, their dimensional units are likewise multiplied or divided; this corresponds to addition or subtraction in the vector space. When measurable quantities are raised to a rational power, the same is done to the dimensional symbols attached to those quantities; this corresponds to scalar multiplication in the vector space.

A basis for such a vector space of dimensional symbols is called a set of base quantities, and all other vectors are called derived units. As in any vector space, one may choose different bases, which yields different systems of units (e.g., choosing whether the unit for charge is derived from the unit for current, or vice versa).

The group identity 1, the dimension of dimensionless quantities, corresponds to the origin in this vector space.

The set of units of the physical quantities involved in a problem correspond to a set of vectors (or a matrix).

Consequently, every possible commensurate equation for the physics of the system can be rewritten in the form

Knowing this restriction can be a powerful tool for obtaining new insight into the system.

The dimension of physical quantities of interest in mechanics can be expressed in terms of base dimensions M, L, and T – these form a 3-dimensional vector space. This is not the only valid choice of base dimensions, but it is the one most commonly used. For example, one might choose force, length and mass as the base dimensions (as some have done), with associated dimensions F, L, M; this corresponds to a different basis, and one may convert between these representations by a change of basis. The choice of the base set of dimensions is thus a convention, with the benefit of increased utility and familiarity. The choice of base dimensions is not arbitrary, because the dimensions must form a basis: they must span the space, and be linearly independent.

For example, F, L, M form a set of fundamental dimensions because they form a basis that is equivalent to M, L, T: the former can be expressed as [F = ML/T2], L, M, while the latter can be expressed as M, L, [T = (ML/F)1/2].

On the other hand, length, velocity and time (L, V, T) do not form a set of as base dimensions, for two reasons:

  • There is no way to obtain mass – or anything derived from it, such as force – without introducing another base dimension (thus, they do not span the space).
  • Velocity, being expressible in terms of length and time (V = L/T), is redundant (the set is not linearly independent).

Depending on the field of physics, it may be advantageous to choose one or another extended set of dimensional symbols.

Scalar arguments to transcendental functions such as exponential, trigonometric and logarithmic functions, or to inhomogeneous polynomials, must be dimensionless quantities. (Note: this requirement is somewhat relaxed in Siano's orientational analysis described below, in which the square of certain dimensioned quantities are dimensionless.)

While most mathematical identities about dimensionless numbers translate in a straightforward manner to dimensional quantities, care must be taken with logarithms of ratios: the identity log(a/b) = log a − log b, where the logarithm is taken in any base, holds for dimensionless numbers a and b, but it does not hold if a and b are dimensional, because in this case the left-hand side is well-defined but the right-hand side is not.

Similarly, while one can evaluate monomials (xn) of dimensional quantities, one cannot evaluate polynomials of mixed degree with dimensionless coefficients on dimensional quantities: for x2, the expression (3 m)2 = 9 m2 makes sense (as an area), while for x2 + x, the expression (3 m)2 + 3 m = 9 m2 + 3 m does not make sense.

However, polynomials of mixed degree can make sense if the coefficients are suitably chosen physical quantities that are not dimensionless.

This is the height to which an object rises in time t if the acceleration of gravity is 32 feet per second per second and the initial upward speed is 500 feet per second. It is not even necessary for t to be in seconds. For example, suppose t = 0.01 minutes. Then the first term would be

The value of a dimensional physical quantity Z is written as the product of a unit [Z] within the dimension and a dimensionless numerical factor, n.[20]

When like-dimensioned quantities are added or subtracted or compared, it is convenient to express them in consistent units so that the numerical values of these quantities may be directly added or subtracted.

Only in this manner is it meaningful to speak of adding like-dimensioned quantities of differing units.

Some discussions of dimensional analysis implicitly describe all quantities as mathematical vectors.

Consider points on a line, each with a position with respect to a given origin, and distances among them.

  • adding two displacements should yield a new displacement (walking ten paces then twenty paces gets you thirty paces forward),
  • adding a displacement to a position should yield a new position (walking one block down the street from an intersection gets you to the next intersection),
  • subtracting two positions should yield a displacement,
  • but one may not add two positions.

This illustrates the subtle distinction between affine quantities (ones modeled by an affine space, such as position) and vector quantities (ones modeled by a vector space, such as displacement).

  • Vector quantities may be added to each other, yielding a new vector quantity, and a vector quantity may be added to a suitable affine quantity (a vector space acts on
  • Affine quantities cannot be added, but may be subtracted, yielding relative quantities which are vectors, and these relative differences may then be added to each other or to an affine quantity.

Properly then, positions have dimension of affine length, while displacements have dimension of vector length. To assign a number to an affine unit, one must not only choose a unit of measurement, but also a point of reference, while to assign a number to a vector unit only requires a unit of measurement.

Thus some physical quantities are better modeled by vectorial quantities while others tend to require affine representation, and the distinction is reflected in their dimensional analysis.

This distinction is particularly important in the case of temperature, for which the numeric value of absolute zero is not the origin 0 in some scales. For absolute zero,

but for temperature differences,

(Here °R refers to the Rankine scale, not the Réaumur scale). Unit conversion for temperature differences is simply a matter of multiplying by, e.g., 1 °F / 1 K (although the ratio is not a constant value). But because some of these scales have origins that do not correspond to absolute zero, conversion from one temperature scale to another requires accounting for that. As a result, simple dimensional analysis can lead to errors if it is ambiguous whether 1 K means the absolute temperature equal to −272.15 °C, or the temperature difference equal to 1 °C.

Similar to the issue of a point of reference is the issue of orientation: a displacement in 2 or 3 dimensions is not just a length, but is a length together with a direction. (This issue does not arise in 1 dimension, or rather is equivalent to the distinction between positive and negative.) Thus, to compare or combine two dimensional quantities in a multi-dimensional space, one also needs an orientation: they need to be compared to a frame of reference.

This leads to the extensions discussed below, namely Huntley's directed dimensions and Siano's orientational analysis.


When faced with a case where dimensional analysis rejects a variable (g, here) that one intuitively expects to belong in a physical description of the situation, another possibility is that the rejected variable is in fact relevant, but that some other relevant variable has been omitted, which might combine with the rejected variable to form a dimensionless quantity.

When dimensional analysis yields only one dimensionless group, as here, there are no unknown functions, and the solution is said to be "complete" – although it still may involve unknown dimensionless constants, such as κ.

Consider the case of a vibrating wire of length (L) vibrating with an amplitude A (L). The wire has a linear density ρ (M/L) and is under tension s (ML/T2), and we want to know the energy E (ML2/T2) in the wire. Let π1 and π2 be two dimensionless products of powers of the variables chosen, given by

The linear density of the wire is not involved.

where F is some unknown function, or, equivalently as

where f is some other unknown function. Here the unknown function implies that our solution is now incomplete, but dimensional analysis has given us something that may not have been obvious: the energy is proportional to the first power of the tension. Barring further analytical analysis, we might proceed to experiments to discover the form for the unknown function f. But our experiments are simpler than in the absence of dimensional analysis. We'd perform none to verify that the energy is proportional to the tension. Or perhaps we might guess that the energy is proportional to , and so infer that E = ℓs. The power of dimensional analysis as an aid to experiment and forming hypotheses becomes evident.

The power of dimensional analysis really becomes apparent when it is applied to situations, unlike those given above, that are more complicated, the set of variables involved are not apparent, and the underlying equations hopelessly complex.

Consider the case of a thin, solid, parallel-sided rotating disc of axial thickness t (L) and radius R (L). The disc has a density ρ (M/L3), rotates at an angular velocity ω (T−1) and this leads to a stress S (ML−1T−2) in the material. There is a theoretical linear elastic solution, given by Lame, to this problem when the disc is thin relative to its radius, the faces of the disc are free to move axially, and the plane stress constitutive relations can be assumed to be valid. As the disc becomes thicker relative to the radius then the plane stress solution breaks down. If the disc is restrained axially on its free faces then a state of plane strain will occur. However, if this is not the case then the state of stress may only be determined though consideration of three-dimensional elasticity and there is no known theoretical solution for this case. An engineer might, therefore, be interested in establishing a relationship between the five variables. Dimensional analysis for this case leads to the following (5 − 3 = 2) non-dimensional groups:

Through the use of numerical experiments using, for example, the finite element method, the nature of the relationship between the two non-dimensional groups can be obtained as shown in the figure.


Huntley (Huntley 1967) has pointed out that it is sometimes productive to refine our concept of dimension. Two possible refinements are:

  • The magnitude of the components of a vector are to be considered dimensionally distinct.
  • Mass as a measure of quantity is to be considered dimensionally distinct from mass as a measure of inertia.

With these four quantities, we may conclude that the equation for the range R may be written:

Or dimensionally

In a similar manner, it is sometimes found useful (e.g., in fluid mechanics and thermodynamics) to distinguish between mass as a measure of inertia (inertial mass), and mass as a measure of quantity (substantial mass).

  • the mass flow rate with dimension MT−1
  • the pressure gradient along the pipe with dimension ML−2T−2
  • ρ the density with dimension ML−3
  • η the dynamic fluid viscosity with dimension ML−1T−1
  • r the radius of the pipe with dimension L

Huntley's extension has some serious drawbacks:

  • It does not deal well with vector equations involving the cross product,
  • nor does it handle well the use of angles as physical variables.

It also is often quite difficult to assign the L, Lx, Ly, Lz, symbols to the physical variables involved in the problem of interest.

Consider the spherical bubble attached to a cylindrical tube, where one wants the flow rate of air as a function of the pressure difference in the two parts.

Angles are, by convention, considered to be dimensionless variables.

Siano (1985-I, 1985-II) has suggested that the directed dimensions of Huntley be replaced by using orientational symbols 1x 1y 1z to denote vector directions, and an orientationless symbol 10. Thus, Huntley's Lx becomes L 1x with L specifying the dimension of length, and 1x specifying the orientation. Siano further shows that the orientational symbols have an algebra of their own. Along with the requirement that 1i−1 = 1i, the following multiplication table for the orientation symbols results:

The assignment of orientational symbols to physical quantities and the requirement that physical equations be orientationally homogeneous can actually be used in a way that is similar to dimensional analysis to derive a little more information about acceptable solutions of physical problems.

As an example, for the projectile problem, using orientational symbols, θ, being in the xy-plane will thus have dimension 1z and the range of the projectile R will be of the form:

It is seen that the Taylor series of sin(θ) and cos(θ) are orientationally homogeneous using the above multiplication table, while expressions like cos(θ) + sin(θ) and exp(θ) are not, and are (correctly) deemed unphysical.

In orientational analysis, the unit of angle is considered to be a base unit, rather than dimensionless, which will require more careful specification of the units of physical variables.

Dimensionless concepts

It has been argued by some physicists, e.g., M. J. Duff,[19][22] that the laws of physics are inherently dimensionless. The fact that we have assigned incompatible dimensions to Length, Time and Mass is, according to this point of view, just a matter of convention, borne out of the fact that before the advent of modern physics, there was no way to relate mass, length, and time to each other. The three independent dimensionful constants: c, ħ, and G

Dimensional equivalences

Following are tables of commonly occurring expressions in physics, related to the dimensions of energy, momentum, and force.[23]The%20Cambridge%20Handbook%20of%20Physic]][24][25]

If c = ħ = 1, where c is the speed of light and ħ is the reduced Planck constant, and a suitable fixed unit of energy is chosen, then all quantities of length L, mass M and time T can be expressed (dimensionally) as a power of energy E, because length, mass and time can be expressed using speed v, action S, and energy E:[25]

though speed and action are dimensionless (v = c = 1 and S = ħ = 1) – so the only remaining quantity with dimension is energy. In terms of powers of dimensions:

This is particularly useful in particle physics and high energy physics, in which case the energy unit is the electron volt (eV).

However, if electric charges and currents are involved, another unit to be fixed is for electric charge, normally the electron charge e though other choices are possible.

See also

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