Primary decomposition

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In mathematics, the Lasker–Noether theorem states that every Noetherian ring is a Lasker ring, which means that every ideal can be written as an intersection of finitely many primary ideals (which are related to, but not quite the same as, powers of prime ideals). The theorem was first proven by Emanuel Lasker (1905) for the special case of polynomial rings and convergent power series rings, and was proven in its full generality by Emmy Noether (1921).

The Lasker–Noether theorem is an extension of the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, and more generally the fundamental theorem of finitely generated abelian groups to all Noetherian rings. The Lasker–Noether theorem plays an important role in algebraic geometry, by asserting that every algebraic set may be uniquely decomposed into a finite union of irreducible components.

It has a straightforward extension to modules stating that every submodule of a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary submodules. This contains the case for rings as a special case, considering the ring as a module over itself, so that ideals are submodules. This also generalizes the primary decomposition form of the structure theorem for finitely generated modules over a principal ideal domain, and for the special case of polynomial rings over a field, it generalizes the decomposition of an algebraic set into a finite union of (irreducible) varieties.

The first algorithm for computing primary decompositions for polynomial rings was published by Noether's student Grete Hermann (1926).


Write R for a commutative ring, and M and N for modules over it.

  • A zero divisor of a module M is an element x of R such that xm = 0 for some non-zero m in M.
  • An element x of R is called nilpotent in M if xnM = 0 for some positive integer n.
  • A module is called coprimary if every zero divisor of M is nilpotent in M. For example, groups of prime power order and free abelian groups are coprimary modules over the ring of integers.
  • A submodule M of a module N is called a primary submodule if N/M is coprimary.
  • An ideal I is called primary if it is a primary submodule of R. This is equivalent to saying that if ab is in I then either a is in I or bn is in I for some n, and to the condition that every zero-divisor of the ring R/I is nilpotent.
  • A submodule M of a module N is called irreducible if it is not an intersection of two strictly larger submodules.
  • An associated prime of a module M is a prime ideal that is the annihilator of some element of M.


The Lasker–Noether theorem for modules states every submodule of a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary submodules. For the special case of ideals it states that every ideal of a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary ideals.

An equivalent statement is: every finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is contained in a finite product of coprimary modules.

The Lasker–Noether theorem follows immediately from the following three facts:

  • Any submodule of a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is an intersection of a finite number of irreducible submodules.
  • If M is an irreducible submodule of a finitely generated module N over a Noetherian ring then N/M has only one associated prime ideal.
  • A finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is coprimary if and only if it has at most one associated prime.

A proof in somehow different flavor is given below.

Irreducible decomposition in rings[edit]

The study of the decomposition of ideals in rings began as a remedy for the lack of unique factorization in rings like

\mathbb Z[\sqrt{-5}],

in which

6 = 2 \cdot 3 = (1 + \sqrt{-5})(1 - \sqrt{-5}).

If a number does not factor uniquely into primes, then the ideal generated by the number may still factor into the intersection of powers of prime ideals. Failing that, an ideal may at least factor into the intersection of primary ideals.

Let R be a Noetherian ring, and I an ideal in R. Then I has an irredundant primary decomposition into primary ideals.

I = Q_1 \cap \cdots \cap Q_n\

Irredundancy means:

  • Removing any of the Q_i changes the intersection, i.e.,
Q_1 \cap \dots \cap \widehat{Q_i} \cap \dots \cap Q_n \nsubseteq Q_i

for all i, where the hat denotes omission.

More over, this decomposition is unique in the following sense: the set of associated prime ideals is unique, and the primary ideal above every minimal prime in this set is also unique. However, primary ideals which are associated with non-minimal prime ideals are in general not unique.

In the case of the ring of integers \mathbb Z, the Lasker–Noether theorem is equivalent to the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. If an integer n has prime factorization n = \pm p_1^{d_1} \cdots p_r^{d_r}, then the primary decomposition of the ideal generated by (n) \subset \mathbb Z, is

(n) = (p_1^{d_1}) \cap \cdots \cap (p_r^{d_r}).\


Nowadays, it is common to do primary decomposition within the theory of associated primes. The proof below is in the sprit of this approach.[1]

Let M be a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring R and N a submodule. To show N admits a primary decomposition, by replacing M by M/N, it is enough to show that when N = 0. Now,

0 = \cap Q_i \Leftrightarrow \emptyset = \operatorname{Ass}(\cap Q_i) = \cap \operatorname{Ass}(Q_i)

where Q_i are primary submodules of M. In other words, 0 has a primary decomposition if, for each associated prime P of M, there is a primary submodule Q such that P \not\in \operatorname{Ass}(Q). Now, consider the set \{ N \subseteq M | P \not\in \operatorname{Ass}(N) \} (which is nonempty since zero is in it). The set has a maximal element Q since M is a Noetherian module. If Q is not P-primary, say, P' \ne P is associated with M/Q, then R/P' \simeq Q'/Q for some submodule Q', contradicting the maximality. (Note: P \not\in \operatorname{Ass}(Q) \subset \operatorname{Ass}(Q').) Thus, Q is primary and the proof is complete.

Remark: The same proof shows that if R, M, N are all graded, then Q_i in the decomposition may be taken to be graded as well.

Minimal decompositions and uniqueness[edit]

In this section, all modules will be finitely generated over a Noetherian ring R.

A primary decomposition of a submodule M of a module N is called minimal if it has the smallest possible number of primary modules. For minimal decompositions, the primes of the primary modules are uniquely determined: they are the associated primes of N/M. Moreover the primary submodules associated to the minimal or isolated associated primes (those not containing any other associated primes) are also unique. However the primary submodules associated to the non-minimal associated primes (called embedded primes for geometric reasons) need not be unique.

Example: Let N = R = k[xy] for some field k, and let M be the ideal (xyy2). Then M has two different minimal primary decompositions M = (y) ∩ (x, y2) = (y) ∩ (x + yy2). The minimal prime is (y) and the embedded prime is (xy).

When the conclusion does not hold[edit]

The decomposition does not hold in general for non-commutative Noetherian rings. Noether gave an example of a non-commutative Noetherian ring with a right ideal that is not an intersection of primary ideals.

Additive theory of ideals[edit]

This result is the first in an area now known as the additive theory of ideals, which studies the ways of representing an ideal as the intersection of a special class of ideals. The decision on the "special class", e.g., primary ideals, is a problem in itself. In the case of non-commutative rings, the class of tertiary ideals is a useful substitute for the class of primary ideals.


  1. ^ Matsumura 1970, Theorem 11