Number density

In physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and geography, number density (symbol: n or ρN) is an intensive quantity used to describe the degree of concentration of countable objects (particles, molecules, phonons, cells, galaxies, etc.) in physical space: three-dimensional volume number density, two-dimensional area number density, or one-dimensional line number density. Population density is an example of areal number density. The term number concentration (symbol: C, to avoid confusion with amount of substance n) is sometimes used in chemistry for the same quantity, particularly when comparing with other concentrations.


Volume number density is the number of specified objects per unit volume:[1]

where N is the total number of objects in a volume V.

Here it is assumed[2] that N is large enough that rounding of the count to the nearest integer does not introduce much of an error, however V is chosen to be small enough that the resulting n does not depend much on the size or shape of the volume V.


In SI units, number density is measured in m−3, although cm−3 is often used. However, these units are not quite practical when dealing with atoms or molecules of gases, liquids or solids at room temperature and atmospheric pressure, because the resulting numbers are extremely large (on the order of 1020). Using the number density of an ideal gas at 0 °C and 1 atm as a yardstick: n0 = 1 amg = 2.686,777,4 × 1025 m−3 is often introduced as a unit of number density, for any substances at any conditions (not necessarily limited to an ideal gas at 0 °C and 1 atm).[3]


Using the number density as a function of spatial coordinates, the total number of objects N in the entire volume V can be calculated as

where dV = dx dy dz is a volume element. If each object possesses the same mass m0, the total mass m of all the objects in the volume V can be expressed as

Similar expressions are valid for electric charge or any other extensive quantity associated with countable objects. For example, replacing m with q (total charge) and m0 with q0 (charge of each object) in the above equation will lead to a correct expression for charge.

The number density of solute molecules in a solvent is sometimes called concentration, although usually concentration is expressed as a number of moles per unit volume (and thus called molar concentration).

Relation to other quantities

Molar concentration

For any substance, the number density can be expressed in terms of its amount concentration c (in mol/m3) as

where NA is the Avogadro constant. This is still true if the spatial dimension unit, metre, in both n and c is consistently replaced by any other spatial dimension unit, e.g. if n is in cm−3 and c is in mol/cm3, or if n is in L−1 and c is in mol/L, etc.

Mass density

For atoms or molecules of a well-defined molar mass M (in kg/mol), the number density can be expressed in terms of their mass density ρm (in kg/m3) as

Note that the ratio M/NA is the mass of a single atom or molecule in kg.


The following table lists common examples of number densities at 1 atm and 20 °C, unless otherwise noted.

Molecular[4] number density and related parameters of some materials
Material Number density (n) Amount concentration (c) Mass density (ρm) Molar mass (M)
Units 1027 m−3 or 1021 cm−3 amg 103 mol/m3 or mol/L 103 kg/m3 or g/cm3 10−3 kg/mol or g/mol
ideal gas 0.02504 0.932 0.04158 41.58 × 10−6 M M
dry air 0.02504 0.932 0.04158 1.204,1 × 10−3 28.9644
water 33.3679 1,241.93 55.4086 0.99820 18.01524
diamond 176.2 6,556 292.5 3.513 12.01

See also

References and notes

  1. IUPAC, Compendium of Chemical Terminology, 2nd ed. (the "Gold Book") (1997). Online corrected version:  (2006) "number concentration".
  2. Clayton T. Crowe; Martin Sommerfeld; Yutaka Tsuji (1998), Multiphase flows with droplets and particles: allelochemical interactions, CRC Press, p. 18, ISBN 0-8493-9469-4
  3. Joseph Kestin (1979), A Course in Thermodynamics, 2, Taylor & Francis, p. 230, ISBN 0-89116-641-6
  4. For elemental substances, atomic densities/concentrations are used
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