Microwaves and Microwave Oven
Prof. Tai Kai NG and Mr. Chi Wai CHAN
Department of Physics, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
The idea of microwave oven was first conceived by
in 1946 and finally patented in 1950. Th
is based on the principle of frictional heat production using
microwaves. Because of the huge size of the early microwave
weighted over 300 kg and measured over 1.5 metre in
they were mainly used in large restaurants and food
utlets. The first domestic microwave oven was produced by
Raytheon Corporation in 1965.
(The first home
What are Microwaves?
Microwaves form part
of the electromagnetic spectrum with typical wavelengths
from 1 millimetre to 10 centimetres
in between light waves and radio
Like any other electromagnetic waves, the microwave
of both electric and magnetic fields, which are perpendicular to each other and
propagates at the speed of light throughout space(speed of light “c” in vacuum is
roughly 300,000,000 metres per second, or 300,000 kilometres per second) .
from ovens, microwaves are also used in telecommunications, e.g., radars, wireless
computer networks and mobile phones. In fact, the entire universe is filled with
microwave radiation left by the Big Bang explosion of the early Universe.
(Figure1 The Electromagnetic Spectrum)
The Microwave Oven
The core part of a microwave oven is the microwave generator. In the early
the generator is a magnetron, which is a vacuum tube that converts electrical energy
into microwave energy. The
microwaves are transported to the cooking chamber by a
, analogous to electrical wires transporting electricity
chamber is designed to keep the microwaves, so that microwaves bounce off the walls
like beams of light in a mirrored room around and absorbed by food.
Metal wiring on
the glass window of the door keeps the microwaves from leaving the cooking
Cooking with Microwaves
Microwave cooking is a process of exciting the water mol
ecules in food. Food
substance that does not contain
water, such as oil, usually does not get cooked by
microwaves. Water molecules are polar molecules with one end dominated by a
negative charge and the other by a positive charge. The typical frequency of
microwave produced by a microwave oven is of the order of 2.5 GHz (1 GHz =
1,000,000,000 Hz). That is to say, the
electric fields produced by the magnetron
oscillate back and forth at the rate of 2.5 billion times per second (defining 1 billion =
0,000,000). Since the water molecules are polarized, the water molecules in the
food will also get pulled back and forth at the rate of about 2.5 billion times per
second. This rapid back
forth motion between water molecules creates friction,
Typically, microwave can only penetrate about 3.5 to 5 cm into the
food. The centre of the food is cooked mainly by heat conduction. The hot and cold
spots on the food are caused by the interference effect of microwaves
, similar to
bright and dark s
pots on a screen caused by interference of light after passing through
. In order for microwaves to distribute evenly around the food, a turntable or
a rotating source is often used.
The exact amount of microwave energy need to cook a piece of fo
od depends on its
properties. In practice, the amount of microwave energy get absorbed and reflected
can be measured for each food substance. Food substance contains a substantial
amount of water is a good absorber of microwave energy.
When water is change
d to a
, such as ice,
a poor absorber of microwave energy. Other
factors determining the effectiveness of microwave cooking are the shape and
material of the container used.
Round containers generally have better cooking result
food tends to be overheated at sharp corners and edges.
Microwave radiation can pass through plastic and glass, but not metallic objects. This
is why the glass window of the door of microwave oven is laced with metal wiring;
the metal w
iring keeps the microwaves from leaving the cooking chamber.
If you put
a metal object, such as a fork, into the oven, microwaves hitting the fork will get
reflected back to the source.
The extent to which microwaves are reflected varies from
the types of
metal. Certain metal composites actually absorb microwave energy.
Let us take a closer look at what happens when microwaves come into contact with
When microwaves are reflected from a metallic object, it produces a
called arcing effe
ct (Arcing is a microwave term for sparks in the oven). Arcing is
resulted from the build
up of excessive charges in metallic materials
. In microwave
ovens, this can occur when two or more metallic objects, e.g., a metallic food
container and the inner met
allic wall, are placed close to each other causing the air
between them to ionize,
The arcing effect can also take place when
a cooking utensil
with sharp metal edges or
burnt food are come into contact with
inside the oven. If
the arcing object is further bombarded by microwaves,
the temperature of the object rises sharply and being overheated and eventually
causing a fire in the oven.
A phenomenon known as superheating is known to occur when a cup of water is
ated in a microwave oven. The water is referred to as superheated when its
temperature increases above its normal boiling point (the boiling point for water at
standard atmospheric pressure is 100
C). The superheated state is an unstable state.
is superheated, the presence of an external agent such as a spoon or even
milk powder can cause the water to boil vigorously into explosion. If one litre of
water is superheated by only 1 °C, it can produce about 3 litres of steam.
You can see
us it is.
Safety of Microwaves
The safety of microwave radiation in microwave ovens is still a subject of intense
From the above discussions it is clear that we should not put metallic objects
or boiled water into microwave oven.
Other tests ha
ve revealed that nearly all
microwave ovens in the market emit microwaves whilst in operation. In general, the
amount of microwave emission decreases with the distance. The official
recommended value of microwave emission for all domestic ovens is about
As cellular or mobile phones are getting increasingly popular in recent years, the
effect of microwaves on our health has also been a subject of study. The main concern
is the effect of heat produced by microwave radiation on our body, particularl
brain. Despite the fact that the recorded temperature rise on our body caused by
microwave radiation emitted from mobile phones was so low, just a fraction of a
degree Celsius, some researchers believe that
radiation emitted from mobile phones
increase the risk of brain diseases such as the Alzheimer's disease.
In addition to microwave radiation, micro
waved foods are also subject to
investigation. Some tests have revealed that the molecular structures of nutrient in
vegetables, such as carrots
and broccoli, are being deformed at cellular level by high
[About the author:
Professor Tai Kai NG received his BSc degree from the University
of Hong Kong in 1981. He completed his PhD degree at Northwestern University in
e joined the Physics Department of HKUST in 1991. In 1993, Professor Ng
received an Honorable Mention in the 1993 Achievement in Asia Award of the
Overseas Chinese Physics Association, for his contribution to the understanding of the
opic Kondo effect. He is a Fellow of the American Physical
Society since 2000. He is awarded the Croucher Senior Research Fellowship for
2003. Prof. Ng also participates actively in Hong Kong's secondary and primary
school science education. He is a (
Hong Kong) representative in the joint Hong Kong
Mainland expert working groups on Science Education.]
[About the author:
Mr. C W Chan is a Research Assistant, Department of Physics,
Microwaves, Electromagnetic waves, Electric field, Fri
ction, Dielectric constant,
Related Topics in the Syllabus:
Electricity and Magnetism, Heat and Friction
Extensions (from the syllabus):
Bring out ideas: Microwave as part of electromagnetic spectrum, Heat production via
friction of polar m
What is electromagnetic wave?
Electromagnetic waves (EM waves) are transverse waves. They are the
oscillations of electric field and magnetic field in space. EM waves can
propagate in vacuum or media. The speed of EM waves in
is a constant. It is the fastest speed in the universe. Visible light,
microwave and gamma ray are examples of EM waves.
What is the function of a magnetron?
Function of magnetron: It can convert electrical energy into microwave
energy. And th
e microwaves produced are then used for microwave
What is the function of the metal wiring in the glass window of the
It keeps the microwaves from leaving the cooking chamber.
Why water molecules are referred to as polar molecules?
olecules are polar because one end is dominated by a negative
charge (Oxygen atom) and the other by a positive charge ( 2 Hydrogen
How does food substance get cooked in a microwave oven?
The magnetron of the oven produces microwaves to oscillate t
molecules inside the food. The water molecules get pulled back
forth at the rate of about 2.5 billion times per second. This rapid back
forth motion between the water molecules creates friction, and
hence heat. Typically, microwave can onl
y penetrate about 3.5 to 5 cm
into the food. The centre of the food is mainly cooked by heat
Why should we avoid putting metallic objects inside a microwave oven?
When microwaves are reflected from a metallic object, it produces a
cing effect (Arcing is a microwave term for sparks in the
oven). Arcing results from the build
up of excessive charges in
metallic materials. In microwave ovens, this can occur when two or
more metallic objects, e.g., a metallic food container and the meta
interior of the wall, are placed close to each other causing the air
between them to ionize, producing sparks. The arcing effect can also
be produced when a cooking utensil with sharp metal edges or burnt
food are come into contact with microwaves ins
ide the oven. If the
arcing object is further bombarded by microwaves, the temperature of
the object rises sharply and overheats and eventually causing a fire in
Points for further discussion:
What happens if non
polar molecules are radiated by m
What happens if an egg is heated in a microwave oven?
The egg will bomb.
How to prevent “superheating” when a cup of water is heated in a
Eg. To add a wooden spoon in the cup.
How the specific heat capacity c of t
he food may be estimated by the
By Pt = mc
Compare the cooking process of steaming with a wok and micro
waving with a microwave oven in terms of energy transfer.
Steaming: Water is heated by conduction through the wok. The
ergy of water increased further when it changes to steam at
. When the steam touches the food, it condensates and releases
the latent heat to the food. The food is hence cooked.
waving: In the microwave oven, electrical energy is converted
microwave energy by magnetron. The microwave is emitted to
everywhere inside the cooking chamber. When the microwave reaches
the food and gets absorbed by the water molecules there, the food is
heated by radiation. Once the surface of the food is heated, t
of the food (about 3.5
5 cm below the surface) where microwave
cannot reach is heated by conduction.
Teachers can bring their students to the H.E. room to present this
interesting topic and demonstrate microwave cooking.
tudents to heat something up to find out the specific heat
capacity of the food by assuming that no water is running away during
Compare the traditional cooking method (steam) to that of the
microwave oven to see their difference in the H.E. Ro
Study the concept of “interference” mentioned in the section “Cooking
What is interference and how does it occur?
Study wave with a slinky spring.
Show the relation between vibration of medium and wave
ow the adding and subtraction of wave pulse.
(Introduce the principle of superposition.)
Show interference by adding of two trains of waves (incident and
introduce nodes and antinodes and their relations
Show the interferen
ce of light with laser pointer and a double
Related web sites:
The History of the Microwave Oven
This site contains a brief history of the Microwave Oven.
The Magnetron TubeStructure and Operation
A brief introduction of the “heart” of microwave oven
A brief note on the operation of microwave oven. It also introduces the key
components of a microwave oven and their function.
This site contains many simple animations and simulation programs to reveal
how microwave oven works.
Microwave Oven Experiments
These 2 sites contain many videos of untried experiments using microwave
ovens. These experiments are so dangero
us that it is not recommended to try
them without teacher’s guidance and sufficient safety measures.
Food and Environmental Hygiene Department
Cooking Hygiene and Safety
This site co
ntains some hygiene and safety tips in using microwave oven.
This site discusses the latest applications of microwave oven in chemistry.