Primary decomposition

In mathematics, the Lasker–Noether theorem states that every Noetherian ring is a Lasker ring, which means that every ideal can be decomposed as an intersection, called primary decomposition, of finitely many primary ideals (which are related to, but not quite the same as, powers of prime ideals). The theorem was first proven by Emanuel Lasker (1905) for the special case of polynomial rings and convergent power series rings, and was proven in its full generality by Emmy Noether (1921).

The Lasker–Noether theorem is an extension of the fundamental theorem of arithmetic, and more generally the fundamental theorem of finitely generated abelian groups to all Noetherian rings. The Lasker–Noether theorem plays an important role in algebraic geometry, by asserting that every algebraic set may be uniquely decomposed into a finite union of irreducible components.

It has a straightforward extension to modules stating that every submodule of a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary submodules. This contains the case for rings as a special case, considering the ring as a module over itself, so that ideals are submodules. This also generalizes the primary decomposition form of the structure theorem for finitely generated modules over a principal ideal domain, and for the special case of polynomial rings over a field, it generalizes the decomposition of an algebraic set into a finite union of (irreducible) varieties.

The first algorithm for computing primary decompositions for polynomial rings over a field of characteristic 0[1] was published by Noether's student Grete Hermann (1926). The decomposition does not hold in general for non-commutative Noetherian rings. Noether gave an example of a non-commutative Noetherian ring with a right ideal that is not an intersection of primary ideals.


Write R for a commutative ring, and M and N for modules over it.


The Lasker–Noether theorem for modules states every submodule of a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary submodules. For the special case of ideals it states that every ideal of a Noetherian ring is a finite intersection of primary ideals.

An equivalent statement is: every finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring is contained in a finite product of coprimary modules.

The Lasker–Noether theorem follows immediately from the following three facts:

A proof in a somewhat different flavor is given below.

Irreducible decomposition in rings

The study of the decomposition of ideals in rings began as a remedy for the lack of unique factorization in rings like

in which

If a number does not factor uniquely into primes, then the ideal generated by the number may still factor into the intersection of powers of prime ideals. Failing that, an ideal may at least factor into the intersection of primary ideals.

Let R be a Noetherian ring, and I an ideal in R. Then I has an irredundant primary decomposition into primary ideals.

Irredundancy means:

for all i, where the hat denotes omission.

More over, this decomposition is unique in the following sense: the set of associated prime ideals is unique, and the primary ideal above every minimal prime in this set is also unique. However, primary ideals which are associated with non-minimal prime ideals are in general not unique.

In the case of the ring of integers , the Lasker–Noether theorem is equivalent to the fundamental theorem of arithmetic. If an integer n has prime factorization , then the primary decomposition of the ideal generated by , is


Nowadays, it is common to do primary decomposition within the theory of associated primes. The proof below is in the spirit of this approach.[2]

Let M be a finitely generated module over a Noetherian ring R and N a submodule. To show N admits a primary decomposition, by replacing M by , it is enough to show that when . Now,

where are primary submodules of M. In other words, 0 has a primary decomposition if, for each associated prime P of M, there is a primary submodule Q such that . Now, consider the set (which is nonempty since zero is in it). The set has a maximal element Q since M is a Noetherian module. If Q is not P-primary, say, is associated with , then for some submodule Q', contradicting the maximality. (Note: .) Thus, Q is primary and the proof is complete.

Remark: The same proof shows that if R, M, N are all graded, then in the decomposition may be taken to be graded as well.

Minimal decompositions and uniqueness

In this section, all modules will be finitely generated over a Noetherian ring R.

A primary decomposition of a submodule M of a module N is called minimal if it has the smallest possible number of primary modules. For minimal decompositions, the primes of the primary modules are uniquely determined: they are the associated primes of N/M. Moreover, the primary submodules associated to the minimal or isolated associated primes (those not containing any other associated primes) are also unique. However the primary submodules associated to the non-minimal associated primes (called embedded primes for geometric reasons) need not be unique.

Example: Let N = R = k[x, y] for some field k, and let M be the ideal (xy, y2). Then M has two different minimal primary decompositions M = (y) (x, y2) = (y) (x + y, y2). The minimal prime is (y) and the embedded prime is (x, y).

Non-Noetherian case

The next theorem gives necessary and sufficient conditions for a ring to have primary decompositions for its ideals.

Theorem  Let R be a commutative ring. Then the following are equivalent.

  1. Every ideal in R has a primary decomposition.
  2. R has the following properties:
    • (L1) For every proper ideal I and a prime ideal P, there exists an x in R - P such that (I : x) is the pre-image of I RP under the localization map RRP.
    • (L2) For every ideal I, the set of all pre-images of I S−1R under the localization map RS−1R, S running over all multiplicatively closed subsets of R, is finite.

The proof is given at Chapter 4 of Atiyah–MacDonald as a series of exercises.[3]

There is the following uniqueness theorem for an ideal having a primary decomposition.

Theorem  Let R be a commutative ring and I an ideal. Suppose I has a minimal primary decomposition (note: "minimal" implies are distinct.) Then

  1. The set is the set of all prime ideals in the set .
  2. The set of minimal elements of E is the same as the set of minimal prime ideals over I. Moreover, the primary ideal corresponding to a minimal prime P is the pre-image of I RP and thus is uniquely determined by I.

Now, for any commutative ring R, an ideal I and a minimal prime P over I, the pre-image of I RP under the localization map is the smallest P-primary ideal containing I.[4] Thus, in the setting of preceding theorem, the primary ideal Q corresponding to a minimal prime P is also the smallest P-primary ideal containing I and is called the P-primary component of I.

For example, if the power Pn of a prime P has a primary decomposition, then its P-primary component is the n-th symbolic power of P.

Additive theory of ideals

This result is the first in an area now known as the additive theory of ideals, which studies the ways of representing an ideal as the intersection of a special class of ideals. The decision on the "special class", e.g., primary ideals, is a problem in itself. In the case of non-commutative rings, the class of tertiary ideals is a useful substitute for the class of primary ideals.


  1. Primary decomposition requires testing irreducibility of polynomials, which is not always algorithmically possible in nonzero characteristic.
  2. Matsumura 1970, Theorem 11
  3. Atiyah–MacDonald 1969
  4. Atiyah–MacDonald 1969, Ch. 4. Exercise 11

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