In mathematics, the Grothendieck group, or group of differences,[1] of a commutative monoid M is a certain abelian group. This abelian group is constructed from M in the most universal way, in the sense that any abelian group containing a homomorphic image of M will also contain a homomorphic image of the Grothendieck group of M. The Grothendieck group construction takes its name from a specific case in category theory, introduced by Alexander Grothendieck in his proof of the Grothendieck–Riemann–Roch theorem, which resulted in the development of K-theory. This specific case is the monoid of isomorphism classes of objects of an abelian category, with the direct sum as its operation.

Grothendieck group of a commutative monoid


Given a commutative monoid M, "the most general" abelian group K that arises from M is to be constructed by introducing inverse elements to all elements of M. Such an abelian group K always exists; it is called the Grothendieck group of M. It is characterized by a certain universal property and can also be concretely constructed from M.

If M does not have the cancellation property (that is, there exists a, b and c in M such that and ), then the Grothendieck group K cannot contain M. In particular, in the case of a monoid operation denoted multiplicatively that has a zero element satisfying for every the Grothendieck group must be the trivial group (group with only one element), since one must have

for every x.

Universal property

Let M be a commutative monoid. Its Grothendieck group is an abelian group K with a monoid homomorphism satisfying the following universal property: for any monoid homomorphism from M to an abelian group A, there is a unique group homomorphism such that

This expresses the fact that any abelian group A that contains a homomorphic image of M will also contain a homomorphic image of K, K being the "most general" abelian group containing a homomorphic image of M.

Explicit constructions

See also: K-theory § Grothendieck completion

To construct the Grothendieck group K of a commutative monoid M, one forms the Cartesian product . The two coordinates are meant to represent a positive part and a negative part, so corresponds to in K.

Addition on is defined coordinate-wise:


Next one defines an equivalence relation on , such that is equivalent to if, for some element k of M, m1 + n2 + k = m2 + n1 + k (the element k is necessary because the cancellation law does not hold in all monoids). The equivalence class of the element (m1, m2) is denoted by [(m1, m2)]. One defines K to be the set of equivalence classes. Since the addition operation on M × M is compatible with our equivalence relation, one obtains an addition on K, and K becomes an abelian group. The identity element of K is [(0, 0)], and the inverse of [(m1, m2)] is [(m2, m1)]. The homomorphism sends the element m to [(m, 0)].

Alternatively, the Grothendieck group K of M can also be constructed using generators and relations: denoting by the free abelian group generated by the set M, the Grothendieck group K is the quotient of by the subgroup generated by . (Here +′ and −′ denote the addition and subtraction in the free abelian group while + denotes the addition in the monoid M.) This construction has the advantage that it can be performed for any semigroup M and yields a group which satisfies the corresponding universal properties for semigroups, i.e. the "most general and smallest group containing a homomorphic image of M ". This is known as the "group completion of a semigroup" or "group of fractions of a semigroup".


In the language of category theory, any universal construction gives rise to a functor; one thus obtains a functor from the category of commutative monoids to the category of abelian groups which sends the commutative monoid M to its Grothendieck group K. This functor is left adjoint to the forgetful functor from the category of abelian groups to the category of commutative monoids.

For a commutative monoid M, the map i : MK is injective if and only if M has the cancellation property, and it is bijective if and only if M is already a group.

Example: the integers

The easiest example of a Grothendieck group is the construction of the integers from the (additive) natural numbers . First one observes that the natural numbers (including 0) together with the usual addition indeed form a commutative monoid Now when one uses the Grothendieck group construction one obtains the formal differences between natural numbers as elements nm and one has the equivalence relation

for some .

Now define

This defines the integers . Indeed, this is the usual construction to obtain the integers from the natural numbers. See "Construction" under Integers for a more detailed explanation.

Example: the positive rational numbers

Similarly, the Grothendieck group of the multiplicative commutative monoid (starting at 1) consists of formal fractions with the equivalence

for some

which of course can be identified with the positive rational numbers.

Example: the Grothendieck group of a manifold

The Grothendieck group is the fundamental construction of K-theory. The group of a compact manifold M is defined to be the Grothendieck group of the commutative monoid of all isomorphism classes of vector bundles of finite rank on M with the monoid operation given by direct sum. This gives a contravariant functor from manifolds to abelian groups. This functor is studied and extended in topological K-theory.

Example: The Grothendieck group of a ring

The zeroth algebraic K group of a (not necessarily commutative) ring R is the Grothendieck group of the monoid consisting of isomorphism classes of finitely generated projective modules over R, with the monoid operation given by the direct sum. Then is a covariant functor from rings to abelian groups.

The two previous examples are related: consider the case where is the ring of complex-valued smooth functions on a compact manifold M. In this case the projective R-modules are dual to vector bundles over M (by the Serre–Swan theorem). Thus and are the same group.

Grothendieck group and extensions


Another construction that carries the name Grothendieck group is the following: Let R be a finite-dimensional algebra over some field k or more generally an artinian ring. Then define the Grothendieck group as the abelian group generated by the set of isomorphism classes of finitely generated R-modules and the following relations: For every short exact sequence

of R-modules, add the relation

This definition implies that for any two finitely generated R-modules M and N, , because of the split short exact sequence


Let K be a field. Then the Grothendieck group is an abelian group generated by symbols for any finite-dimensional K-vector space V. In fact, is isomorphic to whose generator is the element . Here, the symbol for a finite-dimensional K-vector space V is defined as , the dimension of the vector space V. Suppose one has the following short exact sequence of K-vector spaces.

Since any short exact sequence of vector spaces splits, it holds that . In fact, for any two finite-dimensional vector spaces V and W the following holds:

The above equality hence satisfies the condition of the symbol in the Grothendieck group.

Note that any two isomorphic finite-dimensional K-vector spaces have the same dimension. Also, any two finite-dimensional K-vector spaces V and W of same dimension are isomorphic to each other. In fact, every finite n-dimensional K-vector space V is isomorphic to . The observation from the previous paragraph hence proves the following equation:

Hence, every symbol is generated by the element with integer coefficients, which implies that is isomorphic to with the generator .

More generally, let be the set of integers. The Grothendieck group is an abelian group generated by symbols for any finitely generated abelian groups A. One first notes that any finite abelian group G satisfies that . The following short exact sequence holds, where the map is multiplication by n.

The exact sequence implies that , so every cyclic group has its symbol equal to 0. This in turn implies that every finite abelian group G satisfies by the fundamental theorem of finite abelian groups.

Observe that by the fundamental theorem of finitely generated abelian groups, every abelian group A is isomorphic to a direct sum of a torsion subgroup and a torsion-free abelian group isomorphic to for some non-negative integer r, called the rank of A and denoted by . Define the symbol as . Then the Grothendieck group is isomorphic to with generator Indeed, the observation made from the previous paragraph shows that every abelian group A has its symbol the same to the symbol where . Furthermore, the rank of the abelian group satisfies the conditions of the symbol of the Grothendieck group. Suppose one has the following short exact sequence of abelian groups:

Then tensoring with the rational numbers implies the following equation.

Since the above is a short exact sequence of -vector spaces, the sequence splits. Therefore, one has the following equation.

On the other hand, one also has the following relation; for more information, see Rank of an abelian group.

Therefore, the following equation holds:

Hence one has shown that is isomorphic to with generator

Universal Property

The Grothendieck group satisfies a universal property. One makes a preliminary definition: A function from the set of isomorphism classes to an abelian group is called additive if, for each exact sequence , one has Then, for any additive function , there is a unique group homomorphism such that factors through and the map that takes each object of to the element representing its isomorphism class in Concretely this means that satisfies the equation for every finitely generated -module and is the only group homomorphism that does that.

Examples of additive functions are the character function from representation theory: If is a finite-dimensional -algebra, then one can associate the character to every finite-dimensional -module is defined to be the trace of the -linear map that is given by multiplication with the element on .

By choosing a suitable basis and writing the corresponding matrices in block triangular form one easily sees that character functions are additive in the above sense. By the universal property this gives us a "universal character" such that .

If and is the group ring of a finite group then this character map even gives a natural isomorphism of and the character ring . In the modular representation theory of finite groups, can be a field the algebraic closure of the finite field with p elements. In this case the analogously defined map that associates to each -module its Brauer character is also a natural isomorphism onto the ring of Brauer characters. In this way Grothendieck groups show up in representation theory.

This universal property also makes the 'universal receiver' of generalized Euler characteristics. In particular, for every bounded complex of objects in

one has a canonical element

In fact the Grothendieck group was originally introduced for the study of Euler characteristics.

Grothendieck groups of exact categories

A common generalization of these two concepts is given by the Grothendieck group of an exact category . Simply put, an exact category is an additive category together with a class of distinguished short sequences ABC. The distinguished sequences are called "exact sequences", hence the name. The precise axioms for this distinguished class do not matter for the construction of the Grothendieck group.

The Grothendieck group is defined in the same way as before as the abelian group with one generator [M ] for each (isomorphism class of) object(s) of the category and one relation

for each exact sequence


Alternatively and equivalently, one can define the Grothendieck group using a universal property: A map from into an abelian group X is called "additive" if for every exact sequence one has ; an abelian group G together with an additive mapping is called the Grothendieck group of iff every additive map factors uniquely through .

Every abelian category is an exact category if one just uses the standard interpretation of "exact". This gives the notion of a Grothendieck group in the previous section if one chooses the category of finitely generated R-modules as . This is really abelian because R was assumed to be artinian (and hence noetherian) in the previous section.

On the other hand, every additive category is also exact if one declares those and only those sequences to be exact that have the form with the canonical inclusion and projection morphisms. This procedure produces the Grothendieck group of the commutative monoid in the first sense (here means the "set" [ignoring all foundational issues] of isomorphism classes in .)

Grothendieck groups of triangulated categories

Generalizing even further it is also possible to define the Grothendieck group for triangulated categories. The construction is essentially similar but uses the relations [X] − [Y] + [Z] = 0 whenever there is a distinguished triangle XYZX[1].

Further examples

Moreover, for an exact sequence
m = l + n, so
and is isomorphic to and is generated by Finally for a bounded complex of finite-dimensional vector spaces V *,
where is the standard Euler characteristic defined by

See also


  1. ^ Bruns, Winfried; Gubeladze, Joseph (2009). Polytopes, Rings, and K-Theory. Springer. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-387-76355-2.