Conversion Factors and Dimensional Analysis

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Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

OpenStax Chemistry 2e

A ratio of two equivalent quantities expressed with different measurement units can be used as a unit conversion factor. For example, the lengths of 2.54 cm and 1 in. are equivalent (by definition), and so a unit conversion factor may be derived from the ratio,

When a quantity (such as distance in inches) is multiplied by an appropriate unit conversion factor, the quantity is converted to an equivalent value with different units (such as distance in centimeters). For example, a basketball player’s vertical jump of 34 inches can be converted to centimeters by:

Since this simple arithmetic involves quantities, the premise of dimensional analysis requires that we multiply both numbers and units. The numbers of these two quantities are multiplied to yield the number of the product quantity, 86, whereas the units are multiplied to yield in

Just as for numbers, a ratio of identical units is also numerically equal to one,

and the unit product thus simplifies to cm. (When identical units divide to yield a factor of 1, they are said to “cancel.”) Dimensional analysis may be used to confirm the proper application of unit conversion factors as demonstrated in the following example.

EXAMPLE 1 Using a Unit Conversion Factor

The mass of a competition frisbee is 125 g. Convert its mass to ounces using the unit conversion factor derived from the relationship 1 oz = 28.349 g.


Given the conversion factor, the mass in ounces may be derived using an equation similar to the one used for converting length from inches to centimeters.

The unit conversion factor may be represented as:

The correct unit conversion factor is the ratio that cancels the units of grams and leaves ounces.

Beyond simple unit conversions, the factor-label method can be used to solve more complex problems involving computations. Regardless of the details, the basic approach is the same—all the factors involved in the calculation must be appropriately oriented to ensure that their labels (units) will appropriately cancel and/or combine to yield the desired unit in the result. As your study of chemistry continues, you will encounter many opportunities to apply this approach.

EXAMPLE 2 Computing Quantities from Measurement Results and Known Mathematical Relations

What is the density of common antifreeze in units of g/mL? A 4.00-qt sample of the antifreeze weighs 9.26 lb.


Since density = mass/volume, we need to divide the mass in grams by the volume in milliliters. In general: the number of units of B = the number of units of A × unit conversion factor. 1 lb = 453.59 g; 1 L = 1.0567 qt; 1 L = 1,000 mL. Mass may be converted from pounds to grams as follows:

Volume may be converted from quarts to milliliters via two steps:

Step 1: Convert quarts to liters.

Step 2: Convert liters to milliliters.


Alternatively, the calculation could be set up in a way that uses three unit conversion factors sequentially as follows:

EXAMPLE 3 Computing Quantities from Measurement Results and Known Mathematical Relations

While being driven from Philadelphia to Atlanta, a distance of about 1250 km, a 2014 Lamborghini Aventador Roadster uses 213 L gasoline.

(a) What (average) fuel economy, in miles per gallon, did the Roadster get during this trip?

(b) If gasoline costs $3.80 per gallon, what was the fuel cost for this trip?


(a) First convert distance from kilometers to miles:

and then convert volume from liters to gallons:


Alternatively, the calculation could be set up in a way that uses all the conversion factors sequentially, as follows:

(b) Using the previously calculated volume in gallons, we find:


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:



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