One litre is the volume of a
cube with 10 cm sides
|Unit system||SI derived unit|
|Symbol||l or L|
|In SI base units:||1 L = 10−3 m3|
The litre (International spelling as used by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures) or liter (American spelling) (SI symbols L or l) is a non-SI metric system unit of volume equal to 1 cubic decimetre (dm3), 1,000 cubic centimetres (cm3) or 1/1,000 cubic metre. A cubic decimetre (or litre) occupies a volume of 10×10×10 centimetres (see figure) and is thus equal to one-thousandth of a cubic metre.
The original French metric system used the litre as a base unit. The word litre is derived from an older French unit, the litron, whose name came from Greek via Latin, and which equalled approximately 0.831 litres. The litre was also used in several subsequent versions of the metric system and is accepted for use with the SI, although not an official SI unit—the SI unit of volume is the cubic metre (m3). The spelling used by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures is ‘litre’, a spelling which is shared by almost all English-speaking countries. The less common spelling of ‘liter’ is more predominantly used in American English.
One litre of liquid water has a mass of almost exactly one kilogram, due to the gram being defined in 1795 as one cubic centimetre of water at the temperature of melting ice. Subsequent redefinitions of the metre and kilogram mean that this relationship is no longer exact by definition.
A litre is defined as a special name for a cubic decimetre or 10 centimetres × 10 centimetres × 10 centimetres, (1 L ≡ 1 dm3 ≡ 1000 cm3). Hence 1 L ≡ 0.001 m3 ≡ 1000 cm3, and 1 m3 (i.e. a cubic metre, which is the SI unit for volume) is exactly 1000 L.
From 1901 to 1964, the litre was defined as the volume of one kilogram of pure water at maximum density and standard pressure. The kilogram was in turn specified as the mass of a platinum/iridium cylinder held at Sèvres in France and was intended to be of the same mass as the 1 litre of water referred to above. It was subsequently discovered that the cylinder was around 28 parts per million too large and thus, during this time, a litre was about 1.000028 dm3. Additionally, the mass-volume relationship of water (as with any fluid) depends on temperature, pressure, purity and isotopic uniformity. In 1964, the definition relating the litre to mass was abandoned in favour of the current one. Although the litre is not an official SI unit, it is accepted by the CGPM (the standards body that defines the SI) for use with the SI. CGPM defines the litre and its acceptable symbols.
Litres are most commonly used for items (such as fluids and solids that can be poured) which are measured by the capacity or size of their container, whereas cubic metres (and derived units) are most commonly used for items measured either by their dimensions or their displacements. The litre is often also used in some calculated measurements, such as density (kg/L), allowing an easy comparison with the density of water.
One litre of water has a mass of almost exactly one kilogram when measured at its maximal density, which occurs at about 4 °C. Similarly: 1 millilitre of water has a mass of about 1 g; 1,000 litres of water has a mass of about 1,000 kg (1 tonne). This relationship holds because the gram was originally defined as the mass of 1 mL of water; however, this definition was abandoned in 1799 because the density of water changes with temperature and, very slightly, with pressure.
It is now known that density also depends on the isotopic ratios of the oxygen and hydrogen atoms in a particular water sample. Modern measurements of Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water, which is pure distilled water with an isotopic composition representative of the average of the world’s oceans, show it has a density of 0.999975 ±1×10−6 kg/L at its point of maximum density (3.984 °C) under one standard atmosphere (760 torr, 101.325 kPa) of pressure.
SI prefixes applied to the litre
The litre, though not an official SI unit, may be used with SI prefixes. The most commonly used derived unit is the millilitre, defined as one-thousandth of a litre, and also often referred to by the SI derived unit name ‘cubic centimetre’. It is a commonly used measure, especially in medicine and cooking. Other units may be found in the table below, where the more often used terms are in bold. However, some authorities advise against some of them; for example, in the United States, NIST advocates using the millilitre or litre instead of the centilitre.
|Multiple||Name||Symbols||Equivalent volume||Submultiple||Name||Symbols||Equivalent volume|
|100 L||litre||l (ℓ)||L||dm3||cubic decimetre|
|101 L||decalitre||dal||daL||101 dm3||ten cubic decimetres||10−1 L||decilitre||dl||dL||102 cm3||hundred cubic centimetres|
|102 L||hectolitre||hl||hL||102 dm3||hundred cubic decimetres||10−2 L||centilitre||cl||cL||101 cm3||ten cubic centimetres|
|103 L||kilolitre||kl||kL||m3||cubic metre||10−3 L||millilitre||ml||mL||cm3||cubic centimetre|
|106 L||megalitre||Ml||ML||dam3||cubic decametre||10−6 L||microlitre||µl||µL||mm3||cubic millimetre|
|109 L||gigalitre||Gl||GL||hm3||cubic hectometre||10−9 L||nanolitre||nl||nL||106 µm3||million cubic micrometres|
|1012 L||teralitre||Tl||TL||km3||cubic kilometre||10−12 L||picolitre||pl||pL||103 µm3||thousand cubic micrometres|
|1015 L||petalitre||Pl||PL||103 km3||thousand cubic kilometres||10−15 L||femtolitre||fl||fL||µm3||cubic micrometre|
|1018 L||exalitre||El||EL||106 km3||million cubic kilometres||10−18 L||attolitre||al||aL||106 nm3||million cubic nanometres|
|1021 L||zettalitre||Zl||ZL||Mm3||cubic megametre||10−21 L||zeptolitre||zl||zL||103 nm3||thousand cubic nanometres|
|1024 L||yottalitre||Yl||YL||103 Mm3||thousand cubic megametres||10−24 L||yoctolitre||yl||yL||nm3||cubic nanometre|
|1 L||≈ 0.87987699||quart||Imperial||1 quart||≡ 1.1365225 L|
|1 L||≈ 1.056688||fluid quarts||U.S.||1 fluid quart||≡ 0.946352946 L|
|1 L||≈ 1.75975326||pints||Imperial||1 pint||≡ 0.56826125 L|
|1 L||≈ 2.11337641||fluid pints||U.S.||1 fluid pint||≡ 0.473176473 L|
|1 L||≈ 0.21997||gallon||Imperial||1 gallon||≡ 4.54609 L|
|1 L||≈ 0.2641720523||liquid gallon||U.S.||1 liquid gallon||≡ 3.785411784 L|
|1 L||≈ 0.0353146667||cubic foot||1 cubic foot||≡ 28.316846592 L|
|1 L||≈ 61.0237441||cubic inches||1 cubic inch||≡ 0.016387064 L|
|1 L||≈ 35.1950||fluid ounces||Imperial||1 fluid ounce||≡ 28.4130625 mL|
|1 L||≈ 33.8140||customary fluid ounces||U.S.||1 customary fluid ounce||≡ 29.5735295625 mL|
One litre is slightly more than one U.S. liquid quart and slightly less than one imperial quart or one U.S. dry quart. A mnemonic for its volume relative to the imperial pint is ‘a litre of water is a pint and three quarters’.
A litre is the volume of a cube with sides of 10 cm, which is slightly less than a cube of sides 4 inches (or one-third of a foot). One cubic foot would contain exactly 27 such cubes (four inches on each side), making one cubic foot approximately equal to 27 litres. One cubic foot has an exact volume of 28.316846592 litres, which is within 5% of the 27-litre approximation.
A litre of water has a mass almost exactly equal to one kilogram. An early definition of the kilogram was set as the mass of one litre of water. Because volume changes with temperature and pressure, and pressure uses units of mass, the definition of a kilogram was changed. At standard pressure, one litre of water has a mass of 0.999975 kg at 4 °C, and 0.997 kg at 25 °C.
Originally, the only symbol for the litre was l (lowercase letter L), following the SI convention that only those unit symbols that abbreviate the name of a person start with a capital letter. In many English-speaking countries, however, the most common shape of a handwritten Arabic digit 1 is just a vertical stroke; that is, it lacks the upstroke added in many other cultures. Therefore, the digit ‘1’ may easily be confused with the letter ‘l’. Further, on some typewriters, particularly older ones, the unshifted L key had to be used to type the numeral 1. Even in some computer typefaces, the two characters are barely distinguishable. This caused some concern, especially in the medical community.
As a result, L (uppercase letter L) was adopted as an alternative symbol for litre in 1979. The United States National Institute of Standards and Technology now recommends the use of the uppercase letter L, a practice that is also widely followed in Canada and Australia. In these countries, the symbol L is also used with prefixes, as in mL and µL, instead of the traditional ml and µl used in Europe. In the UK and Ireland as well as the rest of Europe, lowercase l is used with prefixes, though whole litres are often written in full (so, ‘750 ml’ on a wine bottle, but often ‘1 litre’ on a juice carton). In 1990, the CIPM stated that it was still too early to choose a single symbol for the litre.
Prior to 1979, the symbol ℓ (script small l, U+2113), came into common use in some countries; for example, it was recommended by South African Bureau of Standards publication M33 and Canada in the 1970s. This symbol can still be encountered occasionally in some English-speaking countries, and its use is ubiquitous in Japan and South Korea. Fonts covering the CJK characters usually include not only the script small ℓ but also four precomposed characters: ㎕, ㎖, ㎗ and ㎘ (U+3395 to U+3398) for the microlitre, millilitre, decilitre and kilolitre. Such usage in printed works is in conflict with the recommendations published by the BIPM on the advice of the major international standards organisations (including ISO, NIST, NPL, IAU, IUPAC and IUPAP) who state in the SI Brochure that unit symbols should be ‘printed in Roman (upright) type regardless of the type used in the surrounding text’.
The litre was introduced in France in 1795 as one of the new ‘republican units of measurement’ and defined as one cubic decimetre. One litre of liquid water has a mass of almost exactly one kilogram, due to the gram being defined in 1795 as one cubic centimetre of water at the temperature of melting ice. The original decimetre length was 44.344 lignes, which was revised in 1798 to 44.3296 lignes. This made the original litre 1.000974 of today's dm3. It was against this litre that the kilogram was constructed.
In 1879, the CIPM adopted the definition of the litre, with the symbol l (lowercase letter L).
In 1901, at the 3rd CGPM conference, the litre was redefined as the space occupied by 1 kg of pure water at the temperature of its maximum density (3.98 °C) under a pressure of 1 atm. This made the litre equal to about 1.000028 dm3 (earlier reference works usually put it at 1.000027 dm3).
In 1964, at the 12th CGPM conference, the original definition was reverted to, and thus the litre was once again defined in exact relation to the metre, as another name for the cubic decimetre, that is, exactly 1 dm3.
In 1979, at the 16th CGPM conference, the alternative symbol L (uppercase letter L) was adopted. It also expressed a preference that in the future only one of these two symbols should be retained, but in 1990 said it was still too early to do so.
Colloquial and practical usage
- short for ‘millimetre’, a unit of length equal to one-thousandth of a metre
- a unit of length (used in the United States) equal to a thousandth of an inch, or
- the Scandinavian mile, a unit of length equal to 10 kilometre with differing historic definitions
- a unit of angular measurement used in artillery and equal to 1/6400 of a complete revolution.
Generally, these various meanings do not create confusion because the context is usually sufficient—one being a volume, the others linear or angular measurement.
The abbreviation cc (for cubic centimetre, equal to a millilitre or mL) is a unit of the cgs system, that preceded the MKS system, that later evolved into the SI system. The abbreviation cc is still commonly used in many fields including medical dosage and sizing for small combustion engine displacement, such as those used in motorcycles.
In European countries where the metric system was established well before the adoption of the SI standard, there is still carry-over of usage from the precursor cgs and MKS systems. In the SI system, use of prefixes for powers of 1,000 is preferred and all other multiples discouraged. However, in countries where these other multiples were already established, their use remains common. In particular, use of the centi (10−2), deci (10−1), deca (10+1) and hecto (10+2) prefixes are still common. For example, in many European countries, the hectolitre is the typical unit for production and export volumes of beverages (milk, beer, soft drinks, wine, etc.) and for measuring the size of the catch and quotas for fishing boats; decilitres are common in Switzerland and Scandinavia and sometimes found in cookbooks; centilitres indicate the capacity of drinking glasses and of small bottles. In colloquial Dutch in Belgium, a 'vijfentwintiger' and a 'drieëndertiger' (literally 'twenty-fiver' and 'thirty-threer') are the common beer glasses, the corresponding bottles mention 25 cL or 33 cL. Bottles may also be 75 cL or half size at 37.5 cL for 'artisanal' brews or 70 cL for wines or spirits. Cans come in 25 cL, 33 cL and 50 cL a.k.a. 0.5 L. Family size bottles as for soft drinks or drinking water use the litre (0.5 L, 1 L, 1.5 L, 2 L) as well as beer barrels (50 L or the half-sized 25 L). The quantities of some non-liquid food products (e.g. ice cream) are also expressed in mL or L (typically 1000 mL) instead of the mass units. This happens because such goods contain much air and have very low density, thus their unit prices using litres are perceived less shocking. This unit is most common for all other household size containers of liquids from thermocans to buckets to bath tubs; as well as for fuel tanks and consumption for heating or by vehicles.
In countries where the metric system was adopted as the official measuring system after the SI standard was established, common usage more closely follow contemporary SI conventions. For example, in Canada, where the metric system is now in widespread use, consumer beverages are labelled almost exclusively using litres and millilitres. Hectolitres sometimes appear in industry, but centilitres and decilitres are rarely, if ever, used. Larger volumes are usually given in cubic metres (equivalent to 1 kL), or thousands or millions of cubic metres. The situation is similar in Australia, although kilolitres, megalitres and gigalitres are commonly used for measuring water consumption, reservoir capacities and river flows.
For larger volumes of fluids, such as annual consumption of tap water, lorry (truck) tanks, or swimming pools, the cubic metre is the general unit. It is also generally for all volumes of a non-liquid nature.
Fluid flow rates may be measured in litres per unit time interval (second, minute, hour, etc.).
Usages to indicate capacity
Fields where the litre and millilitre are used as a measurement for non-liquid volumes, where the capacity of the container is indicated, include:
- Solid items that can be poured and are measured by their containers (such as, in many places, berries)
- Car boot/trunk size 
- Rucksacks & Climbing packs 
- Computer cases 
- Microwave ovens
- Refrigerators 
- Engine displacement
Notes and references
- International Bureau of Weights and Measures (2006), The International System of Units (SI) (8th ed.), p. 124, ISBN 92-822-2213-6
- Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, 2006, p. 124. (‘Days’ and ‘hours’ are examples of other non-SI units that SI accepts.)
- The Metric Conversion Act of 1985 gives the United States Secretary of Commerce the responsibility of interpreting or modifying the SI for use in the United States. The Secretary of Commerce delegated this authority to the Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) (Turner, 2008). In 2008, the NIST published the U.S. version (Taylor and Thompson, 2008a) of the English text of the eighth edition of the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (BIPM) publication Le Système International d’ Unités (SI) (BIPM, 2006). In the NIST publication, the spellings ‘meter’, ‘liter’ and ‘deka’ are used rather than ‘metre’, ‘litre’ and ‘deca’ as in the original BIPM English text (Taylor and Thompson, 2008a, p. iii). The Director of the NIST officially recognized this publication, together with Taylor and Thompson (2008b), as the ‘legal interpretation’ of the SI for the United States (Turner, 2008).
- "Décret relatif aux poids et aux mesures du 18 germinal an 3 (7 avril 1795)" [Weights and measures decree dated 18 Germinal, Year 3 (7 April 1795)] (in French). Association Métrodiff. 7 April 1795.
Gramme, le poids absolu d'un volume d'eau pure égal au cube de la centième partie du mètre , et à la température de la glace fondante.English translation: ‘Gramme: the absolute weight of a volume of pure water equal to the cube of the hundredth part of the meter, at the temperature of melting ice.’
- Isotopic composition and temperature per London South Bank University’s “List of physicochemical data concerning water”, density and uncertainty per NIST Standard Reference Database Number 69 (Retrieved: 2010-04-05)
- Kenneth Butcher, Linda Crown, & Elizabeth J. Gentry (2006), The International System of Units (SI) – Conversion Factors for General Use, NIST Special Publication 1038
- "Online water density calculator". Antoine.frostburg.edu. Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- Non-SI units accepted for use with the SI by the CIPM – NIST
- International Bureau of Weights and Measures (2006), The International System of Units (SI) (8th ed.), ISBN 92-822-2213-6
- "Criteria for membership of a Consultative Committee". Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. Retrieved 2012-09-25.
- "Visite Générale au Musée des arts et métiers". Paris: Musée des arts et métiers. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
Comment s’est appelé cet étalon de mesure avant de s’appeler le litre ? - Le Cadil [What was the name of this measurement before called being called a litre? - a Cadil].
- "Décret relatif aux poids et aux mesures du 18 germinal an 3 (7 avril 1795)" [Weights and measures decree dated 18 Germinal, Year 3 (7 April 1795)] (in French). Association Métrodiff. 7 April 1795.
Litre, la mesure de capacité, tant pour les liquides que pour les matières sèches, dont la contenance sera celle du cube de la dixièrne partie du mètre.English translation: ‘Litre: unit of capacity for both liquids and solids which will be equivalent to a cube of [with sides] one tenth of a metre.’
- "NIST, 2000". Ts.nist.gov. Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- "Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, 2006" (PDF). Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- "mil". The Free Online Dictionary.
- "Buying a car: Top 10 Estate Car buying tips". Which? / Consumer Association. 2012. Retrieved 2012-11-09.
- "ASUS unveils headless Eee Box desktop PC - Hardware". Techworld. 13 August 2008. Retrieved 2012-04-26.
- "Energystar.gov Energy Star recognition criteria".
- "Refuse collection: Wheelie bins". Ealing Council. 2012. Retrieved 2012-11-09.
The standard size wheelie bin (240 litre) ...
- "Even in the USA, engine sizes are regularly expressed in litres.". Retrieved 2013-04-25.
- Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (2006). "The International System of Units (SI)" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-08-18.
- Bureau International des Poids et Mesures. (2006). "The International System of Units (SI)" (on-line browser):
- Table 6 (Non-SI units accepted for use with the International System). Retrieved 2008-08-24
- National Institute of Standards and Technology (11 November 2000). "Appendix C: General tables of units of measurement". NIST Handbook 44: Specifications, Tolerances, and Other Technical Requirements for Weighing and Measuring Devices. National Institute of Standards and Technology. Retrieved 2006-10-09.
- National Institute of Standards and Technology. (December 2003). The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty: International System of Units (SI) (web site):
- Taylor, B.N. and Thompson, A. (Eds.). (2008a). The International System of Units (SI). United States version of the English text of the eighth edition (2006) of the International Bureau of Weights and Measures publication Le Système International d’ Unités (SI) (Special Publication 330). Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology. Retrieved 2008-08-18.
- Taylor, B.N. and Thompson, A. (2008b). Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (Special Publication 811). Gaithersburg, MD: National Institute of Standards and Technology. Retrieved 2008-08-23.
- Turner, J. (Deputy Director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology). (16 May 2008)."Interpretation of the International System of Units (the Metric System of Measurement) for the United States". Federal Register Vol. 73, No. 96, p. 28432-3.
- UK National Physical Laboratory. Internationally recognised non SI units