Direct limit

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In mathematics, a direct limit (also called inductive limit) is a colimit of a "directed family of objects". We will first give the definition for algebraic structures like groups and modules, and then the general definition, which can be used in any category.

Formal definition[edit]

Algebraic objects[edit]

In this section objects are understood to be sets with a given algebraic structure such as groups, rings, modules (over a fixed ring), algebras (over a fixed field), etc. With this in mind, homomorphisms are understood in the corresponding setting (group homomorphisms, etc.).

Start with the definition of a direct system of objects and homomorphisms. Let \langle I,\le\rangle be a directed set. Let \{A_i : i\in I\} be a family of objects indexed by I\, and  f_{ij}\colon A_i \rightarrow A_j be a homomorphism for all i \le j with the following properties:

  1. f_{ii}\, is the identity of A_i\,, and
  2. f_{ik}= f_{jk}\circ f_{ij} for all i\le j\le k.

Then the pair \langle A_i,f_{ij}\rangle is called a direct system over I\,.

The underlying set of the direct limit, A\,, of the direct system \langle A_i,f_{ij}\rangle is defined as the disjoint union of the A_i\,'s modulo a certain equivalence relation \sim\,:

\varinjlim A_i = \bigsqcup_i A_i\bigg/\sim.

Here, if x_i\in A_i and x_j\in A_j, x_i\sim\, x_j if there is some k\in I such that f_{ik}(x_i) = f_{jk}(x_j)\,. Heuristically, two elements in the disjoint union are equivalent if and only if they "eventually become equal" in the direct system. An equivalent formulation that highlights the duality to the inverse limit is that an element is equivalent to all its images under the maps of the directed system, i.e. x_i\sim\, f_{ik}(x_i).

One naturally obtains from this definition canonical functions \phi_i\colon A_i\rightarrow A sending each element to its equivalence class. The algebraic operations on A\, are defined such that these maps become morphisms.

An important property is that taking direct limits in the category of modules is an exact functor.

Direct limit over a direct system in a category[edit]

The direct limit can be defined in an arbitrary category \mathcal{C} by means of a universal property. Let \langle X_i, f_{ij}\rangle be a direct system of objects and morphisms in \mathcal{C} (same definition as above). The direct limit of this system is an object X\, in \mathcal{C} together with morphisms \phi_i\colon X_i\rightarrow X satisfying \phi_i =\phi_j \circ f_{ij}. The pair \langle X, \phi_i\rangle must be universal in the sense that for any other such pair \langle Y, \psi_i\rangle there exists a unique morphism  u\colon X\rightarrow Y making the diagram

Direct limit category.svg

commute for all i, j. The direct limit is often denoted

X = \varinjlim X_i

with the direct system \langle X_i, f_{ij}\rangle being understood.

Unlike for algebraic objects, the direct limit may not exist in an arbitrary category. If it does, however, it is unique in a strong sense: given another direct limit X′ there exists a unique isomorphism X′ → X commuting with the canonical morphisms.

We note that a direct system in a category \mathcal{C} admits an alternative description in terms of functors. Any directed poset \langle I,\le \rangle can be considered as a small category \mathcal{I} where the morphisms consist of arrows i\rightarrow j if and only if i\le j. A direct system is then just a covariant functor \mathcal{I}\rightarrow \mathcal{C}. In this case a direct limit is a colimit.


  • A collection of subsets M_i of a set M can be partially ordered by inclusion. If the collection is directed, its direct limit is the union \bigcup M_i.
  • Let I be any directed set with a greatest element m. The direct limit of any corresponding direct system is isomorphic to Xm and the canonical morphism φm: XmX is an isomorphism.
  • Let p be a prime number. Consider the direct system composed of the groups Z/pnZ and the homomorphisms Z/pnZZ/pn+1Z induced by multiplication by p. The direct limit of this system consists of all the roots of unity of order some power of p, and is called the Prüfer group Z(p).
  • Let F be a C-valued sheaf on a topological space X. Fix a point x in X. The open neighborhoods of x form a directed poset ordered by inclusion (UV if and only if U contains V). The corresponding direct system is (F(U), rU,V) where r is the restriction map. The direct limit of this system is called the stalk of F at x, denoted Fx. For each neighborhood U of x, the canonical morphism F(U) → Fx associates to a section s of F over U an element sx of the stalk Fx called the germ of s at x.
  • Direct limits in the category of topological spaces are given by placing the final topology on the underlying set-theoretic direct limit.
  • Direct limits are linked to inverse limits via
\mathrm{Hom} (\varinjlim X_i, Y) = \varprojlim \mathrm{Hom} (X_i, Y).
  • Consider a sequence {An, φn} where An is a C*-algebra and φn : AnAn + 1 is a *-homomorphism. The C*-analog of the direct limit construction gives a C*-algebra satisfying the universal property above.

Related constructions and generalizations[edit]

The categorical dual of the direct limit is called the inverse limit (or projective limit). More general concepts are the limits and colimits of category theory. The terminology is somewhat confusing: direct limits are colimits while inverse limits are limits.

See also[edit]