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International Temperature Scale of 1990

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The International Temperature Scale of 1990 (ITS-90) is an equipment calibration standard for making measurements on the Kelvin and Celsius temperature scales. ITS–90 is an approximation of the thermodynamic temperature scale that facilitates the comparability and compatibility of temperature measurements internationally. ITS–90 offers defined calibration points ranging from 0.65 K to approximately 1358 K (−272.5 °C to 1085 °C) and is subdivided into multiple temperature ranges which overlap in some instances.



ITS-90 is designed to represent the thermodynamic (absolute) temperature scale (referencing absolute zero) as closely as possible throughout its range. Many different thermometer designs are required to cover the entire range. These include helium vapor pressure thermometers, helium gas thermometers, standard platinum resistance thermometers (known as SPRTs, PRTs or Platium RTDs) and monochromatic radiation thermometers.

Although the Kelvin and Celsius scales are defined using absolute zero (0 K) and the triple point of water (273.16 K and 0.01 °C), it is impractical to use this definition at temperatures that are very different from the triple point of water. Accordingly, ITS–90 uses numerous defined points, all of which are based on various thermodynamic equilibrium states of fourteen pure chemical elements and one compound (water). Most of the defined points are based on a phase transition; specifically the melting/freezing point of a pure chemical element. However, the deepest cryogenic points are based exclusively on the vapor pressure/temperature relationship of helium and its isotopes whereas the remainder of its cold points (those less than room temperature) are based on triple points. Examples of other defining points are the triple point of hydrogen (−259.3467 °C) and the freezing point of aluminum (660.323 °C).

Thermometers calibrated per ITS–90 use complex mathematical formulas to interpolate between its defined points. ITS–90 specifies rigorous control over variables to ensure reproducibility from lab to lab. For instance, the small effect that atmospheric pressure has upon the various melting points is compensated for (an effect that typically amounts to no more than half a millikelvin across the different altitudes and barometric pressures likely to be encountered). The standard even compensates for the pressure effect due to how deeply the temperature probe is immersed into the sample. ITS–90 also draws a distinction between “freezing” and “melting” points. The distinction depends on whether heat is going into (melting) or out of (freezing) the sample when the measurement is made. Only gallium is measured while melting, all the other metals are measured while the samples are freezing.

A practical effect of ITS–90 is the triple points and the freezing/melting points of its thirteen chemical elements are precisely known for all temperature measurements calibrated per ITS–90 since these thirteen values are fixed by its definition. Only the triple point of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water (VSMOW) is known with absolute precision—regardless of the calibration standard employed—because the very definitions of both the Kelvin and Celsius scales are fixed by international agreement based, in part, on this point.


There are often small differences between measurements calibrated per ITS–90 and thermodynamic temperature. For instance, precise measurements show that the boiling point of VSMOW water under one standard atmosphere of pressure is actually 373.1339 K (99.9839 °C) when adhering strictly to the two-point definition of thermodynamic temperature. When calibrated to ITS–90, where one must interpolate between the defining points of gallium and indium, the boiling point of VSMOW water is about 10 mK less, about 99.974 °C. The virtue of ITS–90 is that another lab in another part of the world will measure the very same temperature with ease due to the advantages of a comprehensive international calibration standard featuring many conveniently spaced, reproducible, defining points spanning a wide range of temperatures.

Although “International Temperature Scale of 1990” has the word “scale” in its title, this is a misnomer that can be misleading. ITS–90 is not a scale; it is an equipment calibration standard. Temperatures measured with equipment calibrated per ITS–90 may be expressed using any temperature scale such as Celsius, Kelvin, Fahrenheit, or Rankine. For example, a temperature can be measured using equipment calibrated to the kelvin-based ITS–90 standard, and that value may then be converted to, and expressed as, a value on the Fahrenheit scale (e.g. 211.953 °F).

ITS–90 does not address the highly specialized equipment and procedures used for measuring temperatures extremely close to absolute zero. For instance, to measure temperatures in the nanokelvin range (billionths of a kelvin), scientists using optical lattice laser equipment to adiabatically cool atoms, turn off the entrapment lasers and simply measure how far the atoms drift over time to measure their temperature. A cesium atom with a velocity of 7 mm per second is equivalent to temperature of about 700 nK (which was a record cold temperature achieved by the NIST in 1994).

Defining points

Between 0.65 K and 5.0 K ITS-90 is defined by the vapor-pressure temperature relationship of 3He and 4He.

Between 3.0 K and 24.5561 K (triple point of neon) ITS-90 is defined by means of a helium gas thermometer calibrated at three Fixed points in this range.

Between 13.8033 K(triple point of equilibrium hydrogen) and 961.78 ºC(freezing point of silver) ITS-90 is defined by means of a Standard Platinum resistance thermometer(RTD) calibrated at the defining fixed points and using specified interpolation procedures.

Above 1234.93ºK (freezing point of silver) ITS-90 is defined in terms of a defining fixed point and the Planck radiation law.

The table below lists the defining fixed points of ITS-90.

Substance and its stateDefining point in kelvins
Defining point in degrees Celsius
Vapor-pressure / temperature

relation of helium-3 (by equation)

(0.65 to 3.2)(−272.50 to −269.95)
Vapor-pressure / temperature

relation of helium-4 below its

lambda point (by equation)

(1.25 to 2.1768)(−271.90 to −270.9732)
Vapor-pressure / temperature

relation of helium-4 above its

lambda point (by equation)

(2.1768 to 5.0)(−270.9732 to −268.15)
Vapor-pressure / temperature

relation of helium (by equation)

(3 to 5)(−270.15 to −268.15)
Triple point of hydrogen13.8033−259.3467
Triple point of neon24.5561−248.5939
Triple point of oxygen54.3584−218.7916
Triple point of argon83.8058−189.3442
Triple point of mercury234.3156−38.8344
Triple point of water1273.160.01
Melting point2 of gallium302.914629.7646
Freezing point2 of indium429.7485156.5985
Freezing point2 of tin505.078231.928
Freezing point2 of zinc692.677419.527
Freezing point2 of aluminum933.473660.323
Freezing point2 of silver1234.93961.78
Freezing point2 of gold1337.331064.18
Freezing point2 of copper1357.771084.62

1 The triple point of water is frequently approximated by the using the melting point of water at Standard conditions for temperature and pressure[1]

2 Melting and freezing points are distinguished by whether heat is entering or leaving the sample when its temperature is measured. See melting point for more information.

See also

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