Impedance of free space

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In electromagnetism, the impedance of free space, Z0, is a physical constant relating the magnitudes of the electric and magnetic fields of electromagnetic radiation travelling through free space. That is,

where |E| is the electric field strength and |H| is the magnetic field strength. Its presently accepted value is[1]

Z0 = 376.730313668(57) Ω.

Where Ω is the ohm, the SI unit of electrical resistance. The impedance of free space (that is the wave impedance of a plane wave in free space) is equal to the product of the vacuum permeability μ0 and the speed of light in vacuum c0. Before 2019, the values of both these constants were taken to be exact (they were given in the definitions of the ampere and the metre respectively), and the value of the impedance of free space was therefore likewise taken to be exact. However, with the redefinition of the SI base units that came into force on 20 May 2019, the impedance of free space is subject to experimental measurement because only the speed of light in vacuum c0 retains an exactly defined value.


The analogous quantity for a plane wave travelling through a dielectric medium is called the intrinsic impedance of the medium, and designated η (eta). Hence Z0 is sometimes referred to as the intrinsic impedance of free space,[2] and given the symbol η0.[3] It has numerous other synonyms, including:

  • wave impedance of free space,[4]
  • the vacuum impedance,[5]
  • intrinsic impedance of vacuum,[6]
  • characteristic impedance of vacuum,[7]
  • wave resistance of free space.[8]

Relation to other constants[edit]

From the above definition, and the plane wave solution to Maxwell's equations,


The reciprocal of Z0 is sometimes referred to as the admittance of free space and represented by the symbol Y0.

Historical exact value[edit]

Between 1948 and 2019, the SI unit the ampere was defined by choosing the numerical value of μ0 to be exactly 4π × 10−7 H/m. Similarly, since 1983 the SI metre has been defined relative to the second by choosing the value of c0 to be 299792458 m/s. Consequently until the 2019 redefinition,





This chain of dependencies changed when the ampere was redefined on 20 May 2019.

Approximation as 120π ohms[edit]

It is very common in textbooks and papers written before about 1990 to substitute the approximate value 120π ohms for Z0. This is equivalent to taking the speed of light c to be precisely 3×108 m/s in conjunction with the then-current definition of μ0 as 4π × 10−7 H/m. For example, Cheng 1989 states[3] that the radiation resistance of a Hertzian dipole is

(result in ohms; not exact).

This practice may be recognized from the resulting discrepancy in the units of the given formula. Consideration of the units, or more formally dimensional analysis, may be used to restore the formula to a more exact form, in this case to

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ "2018 CODATA Value: characteristic impedance of vacuum". The NIST Reference on Constants, Units, and Uncertainty. NIST. 20 May 2019. Retrieved 2019-10-31.
  2. ^ Haslett, Christopher J. (2008). Essentials of radio wave propagation. The Cambridge wireless essentials series. Cambridge University Press. p. 29. ISBN 978-0-521-87565-3.
  3. ^ a b David K Cheng (1989). Field and wave electromagnetics (Second ed.). New York: Addison-Wesley. ISBN 0-201-12819-5.
  4. ^ Guran, Ardéshir; Mittra, Raj; Moser, Philip J. (1996). Electromagnetic wave interactions. Series on stability, vibration, and control of systems. World Scientific. p. 41. ISBN 978-981-02-2629-9.
  5. ^ Clemmow, P. C. (1973). An introduction to electromagnetic theory. University Press. p. 183. ISBN 978-0-521-09815-1.
  6. ^ Kraus, John Daniel (1984). Electromagnetics. McGraw-Hill series in electrical engineering. McGraw-Hill. p. 396. ISBN 978-0-07-035423-4.
  7. ^ Cardarelli, François (2003). Encyclopaedia of scientific units, weights, and measures: their SI equivalences and origins. Springer. p. 49. ISBN 978-1-85233-682-0.
  8. ^ Ishii, Thomas Koryu (1995). Handbook of Microwave Technology: Applications. Academic Press. p. 315. ISBN 978-0-12-374697-9.
  9. ^ With ISO 31-5, NIST and the BIPM have adopted the notation c0 for the speed of light in free space.
  10. ^ "Current practice is to use c0 to denote the speed of light in vacuum according to ISO 31. In the original Recommendation of 1983, the symbol c was used for this purpose." Quote from NIST Special Publication 330, Appendix 2, p. 45 Archived 2016-06-03 at the Wayback Machine,

Further reading[edit]