For decades, metrologists have strived to retire ‘Le Grand K’ — the platinum and iridium cylinder that for 126 years has defined the kilogram from a high-security vault outside Paris. Now it looks as if they at last have the data needed to replace the cylinder with a definition based on mathematical constants.

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One method, pioneered by an international team known as the Avogadro Project, involves counting the atoms in two silicon-28 spheres that each weigh the same as the reference kilogram. This allows them to calculate a value for Avogadro’s constant, which the researchers convert into a value for Planck’s constant. Another method uses a device called a watt balance to produce a value for Planck’s constant by weighing a test mass calibrated according to the reference kilogram against an eletromagnetic force.