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Kiwi innovation pinpoints the new kilo as global measurement standards change

This article was published on 23 November 2018

The international science community has voted to change the way weight, electric current, temperature and substance amounts are defined.

On 16 November at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in Versailles, New Zealand voted in favour of a new global definition for the kilogram (weight), ampere (electric current), kelvin (temperature) and mole (amount of substance). Instead of comparing masses with a lump of metal kept in a vault in Paris, scientists will now use quantum physics and great engineering to define and realize the international mass standard. A kiwi scientist has developed an innovative desktop measurement instrument that could become widely used when the changes come into force next year in May.

Instead of revolving around physical objects, such as the 129-year-old metal cylinder in Paris, these measurements will be redefined based on natural constants – quantum physics and the Planck constant. The woman who cast New Zealand’s vote is Dr Fleur Francois, Director of the country’s national metrology institute, the Measurements Standards Laboratory (MSL).

“It’s crazy to have a system of measurement based on something that’s not stable. To be able to trade, innovate and have trust in everyday measurements, it’s important we move away from physical objects, which can change, to more stable constants of nature,” says Dr Francois.

“The change to quantum physics will open up a whole new world of innovation opportunities. For me, when I think about space exploration – and who knows, we might colonise Mars one day – we’re going to need to be able to measure to greater accuracy using standards that are more universal than a single piece of metal in Paris.”

The changes to these units will ultimately impact every industry, from aviation and beverages to natural gas and pharmaceuticals, and as history has shown may enable new technologies, Dr Francois says. But if metrologists (measurement scientists) do their job properly, the average person won’t notice a thing.

Read the full story at our Measurement Standards Laboratory website.