Sieve of Eratosthenes – Generate prime numbers

In the last article about prime numbers, I discussed about different types of primilarity test and Trial division method to verify if a number is a prime. If you haven’t read that yet, here is the article, Prime numbers and basic primilarity test. In this article, we’ll focus on sieve of eratosthenes, which helps us to compute primes in a range [1, r] efficiently and how we can modify this algorithm to compute primes from l to r.

Bruteforce method

One easy way to generate primes numbers in a range [a, b] is to bruteforces from a to b and check if the number is a prime using the square root primilarity test. This is very easy to understand but it’s much slow since for each iteration we are performing a square root primilary test.

vector<int> primes;
for (int i = a; i <= b; ++i) {
    // if i is a prime
    if ( isPrime(i) ) {
        // insert i into the vector

Seive of Eratosthenes

The previous algorithm seems to be very slow. Let’s see how we can use the algorithm Sieve of Eratosthenes to generate primes in a range. It’s very efficient and also very easy to understand. At firdt we take all numbers in the range [2, n]. We start with 2 and we mark all multiples of 2 of the form 2k where k > 1 as composite.

Then we find the next number that hasn’t been marked as composite. The next such number is 3. Since it was not marked, it means 3 is prime. Again we mark all numbers of the form 3k where k > 1. The next unmarked number is 5, which is the next prime number, again we mark all the numbers of the form 5k where k > 1 as composite, we continue this process. The idea is that when we get a unmarked number, we can say that the number is prime. So, we can push that number into a vector where we’ll store all the primes. After the end of the process, the vector will contain all the primes in the range [2, n].

vector<int> primes; // all primes will be inserted here
bool marks[1010];

void sieve( int n ) {
    for (int i = 2; i <= n; ++i) {
        if ( marks[i] ) continue; // if i is composite

        // otherwise 'i' is prime
        // so we find all the multiples of i
        // and mark those as composite
        for (int j = i + i; j <= n; j += i) marks[j] = 1;

        // insert 'i' into the vector

We can further optimize our code, notice that we are going from 2 to n in the first loop, but we can go only upto \sqrt{n}, since every composite number has a divisor less than or equal to the square root of itself. Why is that ?

Suppose that n is a composite. Then we can write n=a \times b for integers a and b which are both greater than 1. If both a>\sqrt{n} and b>\sqrt{n} then we would have ab> \sqrt{n} \times \sqrt{n} thus ab > n, which is a contradiction. Hence either a \leq \sqrt{n} or b \leq \sqrt{n}, so if you check as far as \sqrt{n} and don’t find a divisor of n greater than 1, then n must be a prime. Thus, we can conclude that a composite number has a divisor less than or equal to the square root of itself.

This way we mark all the composite numbers. We push 2 into our primes list. After that we can start a loop from [3, n] incrementing 2 at a time (ignoring all are even numbers). Also we can use bitset instead of regular boolean array for memory optiomization.

vector<int> primes; // all primes will be saved here
bitset<10000> marks; // using bitset for memory optimization

void sieve( int n ) {
    // we first fill the marks
    // marks[i] = 0, if i is prime
    // marks[i] = 1, if i is composite

    for (int i = 2; i * i <= n; ++i) {
        if ( marks[i] ) continue; // if i is composite

        // otherwise 'i' is prime
        // so we find all the multiples of i
        // mark those as composite
        for (int j = i + i; j <= n; j += i) marks[j] = 1;

    if ( n >= 2 ) primes.push_back(2);

    // we can skip all the even numbers except 2
    for (int i = 3; i <= n; i += 2) 
        if ( marks[i] == 0 ) primes.push_back( i );

Segmented Sieve

In the previous section, we saw how we can generate prime numbers in the range [1, n]. But the question is can we do the same in a range [l, r]? For example, l = 100 and r = 200 will give us all the prime numbers between 100 to 200. Segmented sieve will help us to solve this problem. It is nothing but a modification of sieve algorithm.

The idea is quite similar. We know a composite number n has a prime divisor d such that d \leq \sqrt{n}. We can compute all the primes in the range [1, \sqrt{r}]. For prime p_i, mark all the multiples of it (k p_i) as composite such that l \leq k p_i \leq r. For each prime in the range [1, \sqrt{r}], we repeat the same process of marking composite numbers. After the end of process, we can traverse the boolean array to find out which ones are prime.

vector<int> res; // for primes in range [l, r]
vector<int> primes; // for primes in range [1, sqrt(r)]

void segmented_sieve( int l, int r ) {
    // compute all the primes in range [1, sqrt(r)]
    sieve( sqrt(r) );

    // there are total (r - l + 1) numbers in the range
    // marks[i] denotes whether (l + i) is prime or not
    vector<bool> marks(r - l + 1, 0);

    // mark[1] as composite
    if (l == 1) marks[0] = 1;

    for (int i = 0; i < primes.size(); ++i) {

        // we start from the multiple of primes[i]
        // such that k * primes[i] >= l
        int j = (l / primes[i]) * primes[i]; 
        if (j < l) j += primes[i];

        // if j is the current prime
        // we can't mark it as composite
        // so we move to the next multiple
        if (j == primes[i]) j += primes[i];

        while( j <= r ) {
            // since we'll have no primes less than l
            // we can say that marks[j - l] denotes
            // whether j is a prime or not
            marks[j - l] = 1;
            j += primes[i];

    for (int i = 0; i <= r - l; ++i) {
        // marks[i] denotes whether (l + i) is prime or not
        if ( !marks[i] ) res.push_back(l + i);

Related problems

CF 17A – Noldbach problem
LightOJ 1259 – Goldbach’s Conjecture


Wikipedia – Sieve of Eratosthenes

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