In abstract algebra, the concept of

**prime ideals**is an important generalization of the concept of prime numbers. If

*R*is a commutative ring, then an ideal

*P*of

*R*is called

*prime*if it has the following two properties:

- whenever
*a*,*b*are two elements of*R*such that their product*ab*lies in*P*, then*a*is in*P*or*b*is in*P*. -
*P*is not equal to the whole ring*R*

*p*is a prime number and if

*p*divides a product

*ab*of two integers, then

*p*divides

*a*or

*p*divides

*b*. We can therefore say

- A positive integer
*n*is a prime number if and only if the ideal**Z***n*is a prime ideal in**Z**.

Table of contents |

2 Properties 3 Uses |

### Examples

- If
*R*denotes the ring**C**[*X*,*Y*] of polynomials in two variables with complex coefficients, then the ideal generated by the polynomial*Y*^{2}-*X*^{3}-*X*- 1 is a prime ideal (see elliptic curve). - In the ring
**Z**[*X*] of all polynomials with integer coefficients, the ideal generated by 2 and*X*is a prime ideal. It consists of all those polynomials whose constant coefficient is even. - In any ring
`R`, a**maximal ideal**is an ideal`M`that is a subset of exactly 2 ideals (which must then be`M`itself and the entire ring`R`). Every maximal ideal is in fact prime. - If
*M*is a smooth manifold,*R*is the ring of smooth functions on*M*, and*x*is a point in*M*, then the set of all smooth functions*f*with*f*(*x*) = 0 forms a prime ideal (even a maximal ideal) in*R*.

### Properties

- An ideal
*I*in the commutative ring*R*is prime if and only if the factor ring*R/I*is an integral domain. - Every maximal ideal (see above) is prime; an ideal
`I`in the commutative ring`R`is a maximal ideal if and only if the factor ring`R`/`I`is a field. - Every commutative ring ≠ 0 contains at least one prime ideal. In fact, it contains at least one maximal ideal, which can be proven using Zorn's lemma.
- A commutative ring is an integral domain if and only if {0} is a prime ideal.
- A commutative ring is a field if and only if {0} is its only prime ideal, or alternatively, if and only if {0} is a maximal ideal.

### Uses

One use of prime ideals occurs in algebraic geometry, where varieties are defined as the zero sets of ideals in polynomial rings. It turns out that the irreducible varieties correspond to prime ideals. In the modern abstract approach, one starts with an arbitrary commutative ring and turns the set of its prime ideals, also called its spectrum, into a topological space and can thus define generalizations of varieties called schemes, which find applications not only in geometry, but also in number theory.

The introduction of prime ideals in algebraic number theory was a major step forward: it was realized that the ordinary fundamental theorem of arithmetic does not work in rings of algebraic integers, but a substitute was found when Dedekind replaced elements by ideals and prime elements by prime ideals; see Dedekind domain.