Direct limit


In mathematics, a direct limit is a way to construct a (typically large) object from many (typically smaller) objects that are put together in a specific way. These objects may be groups, rings, vector spaces or in general objects from any category. The way they are put together is specified by a system of homomorphisms (group homomorphism, ring homomorphism, or in general morphisms in the category) between those smaller objects. The direct limit of the objects , where ranges over some directed set , is denoted by . This notation suppresses the system of homomorphisms; however, the limit depends on the system of homomorphisms.

Direct limits are a special case of the concept of colimit in category theory. Direct limits are dual to inverse limits, which are a special case of limits in category theory.

Formal definition


We will first give the definition for algebraic structures like groups and modules, and then the general definition, which can be used in any category.

Direct limits of algebraic objects


In this section objects are understood to consist of underlying sets equipped with a given algebraic structure, such as groups, rings, modules (over a fixed ring), algebras (over a fixed field), etc. With this in mind, homomorphisms are understood in the corresponding setting (group homomorphisms, etc.).

Let   be a directed set. Let   be a family of objects indexed by   and   be a homomorphism for all   with the following properties:

  1.   is the identity on  , and
  2.   for all  .

Then the pair   is called a direct system over  .

The direct limit of the direct system   is denoted by   and is defined as follows. Its underlying set is the disjoint union of the  's modulo a certain equivalence relation  :


Here, if   and  , then   if and only if there is some   with   and   such that  . Intuitively, two elements in the disjoint union are equivalent if and only if they "eventually become equal" in the direct system. An equivalent formulation that highlights the duality to the inverse limit is that an element is equivalent to all its images under the maps of the direct system, i.e.   whenever  .

One obtains from this definition canonical functions   sending each element to its equivalence class. The algebraic operations on   are defined such that these maps become homomorphisms. Formally, the direct limit of the direct system   consists of the object   together with the canonical homomorphisms  .

Direct limits in an arbitrary category


The direct limit can be defined in an arbitrary category   by means of a universal property. Let   be a direct system of objects and morphisms in   (as defined above). A target is a pair   where   is an object in   and   are morphisms for each   such that   whenever  . A direct limit of the direct system   is a universally repelling target   in the sense that   is a target and for each target  , there is a unique morphism   such that   for each i. The following diagram


will then commute for all i, j.

The direct limit is often denoted


with the direct system   and the canonical morphisms   being understood.

Unlike for algebraic objects, not every direct system in an arbitrary category has a direct limit. If it does, however, the direct limit is unique in a strong sense: given another direct limit X′ there exists a unique isomorphism X′ → X that commutes with the canonical morphisms.


  • A collection of subsets   of a set   can be partially ordered by inclusion. If the collection is directed, its direct limit is the union  . The same is true for a directed collection of subgroups of a given group, or a directed collection of subrings of a given ring, etc.
  • The weak topology of a CW complex is defined as a direct limit.
  • Let   be any directed set with a greatest element  . The direct limit of any corresponding direct system is isomorphic to   and the canonical morphism   is an isomorphism.
  • Let K be a field. For a positive integer n, consider the general linear group GL(n;K) consisting of invertible n x n - matrices with entries from K. We have a group homomorphism GL(n;K) → GL(n+1;K) that enlarges matrices by putting a 1 in the lower right corner and zeros elsewhere in the last row and column. The direct limit of this system is the general linear group of K, written as GL(K). An element of GL(K) can be thought of as an infinite invertible matrix that differs from the infinite identity matrix in only finitely many entries. The group GL(K) is of vital importance in algebraic K-theory.
  • Let p be a prime number. Consider the direct system composed of the factor groups   and the homomorphisms   induced by multiplication by  . The direct limit of this system consists of all the roots of unity of order some power of  , and is called the Prüfer group  .
  • There is a (non-obvious) injective ring homomorphism from the ring of symmetric polynomials in   variables to the ring of symmetric polynomials in   variables. Forming the direct limit of this direct system yields the ring of symmetric functions.
  • Let F be a C-valued sheaf on a topological space X. Fix a point x in X. The open neighborhoods of x form a directed set ordered by inclusion (UV if and only if U contains V). The corresponding direct system is (F(U), rU,V) where r is the restriction map. The direct limit of this system is called the stalk of F at x, denoted Fx. For each neighborhood U of x, the canonical morphism F(U) → Fx associates to a section s of F over U an element sx of the stalk Fx called the germ of s at x.
  • Direct limits in the category of topological spaces are given by placing the final topology on the underlying set-theoretic direct limit.
  • An ind-scheme is an inductive limit of schemes.



Direct limits are linked to inverse limits via


An important property is that taking direct limits in the category of modules is an exact functor. This means that if you start with a directed system of short exact sequences   and form direct limits, you obtain a short exact sequence  .


We note that a direct system in a category   admits an alternative description in terms of functors. Any directed set   can be considered as a small category   whose objects are the elements   and there is a morphisms   if and only if  . A direct system over   is then the same as a covariant functor  . The colimit of this functor is the same as the direct limit of the original direct system.

A notion closely related to direct limits are the filtered colimits. Here we start with a covariant functor   from a filtered category   to some category   and form the colimit of this functor. One can show that a category has all directed limits if and only if it has all filtered colimits, and a functor defined on such a category commutes with all direct limits if and only if it commutes with all filtered colimits.[1]

Given an arbitrary category  , there may be direct systems in   that don't have a direct limit in   (consider for example the category of finite sets, or the category of finitely generated abelian groups). In this case, we can always embed   into a category   in which all direct limits exist; the objects of   are called ind-objects of  .

The categorical dual of the direct limit is called the inverse limit. As above, inverse limits can be viewed as limits of certain functors and are closely related to limits over cofiltered categories.



In the literature, one finds the terms "directed limit", "direct inductive limit", "directed colimit", "direct colimit" and "inductive limit" for the concept of direct limit defined above. The term "inductive limit" is ambiguous however, as some authors use it for the general concept of colimit.

See also



  1. ^ Adamek, J.; Rosicky, J. (1994). Locally Presentable and Accessible Categories. Cambridge University Press. p. 15. ISBN 9780521422611.