How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 601

Is 2.45 gigahertz the best frequency for a microwave oven? Is that frequency at or near a water molecule resonant frequency? Do water molecules have a resonant frequency?
The frequency of the microwaves used in most microwave ovens, 2.45 gigahertz or 2,450,000,000 cycles per second, isn't related to any resonance of the water molecules themselves. While the isolated water molecules in steam or moist air have clear resonances associated with various vibrational and rotational modes of oscillation, these resonances are smeared out in liquid water. The water molecules in liquid water touch one another and their resonances are disturbed in much the same way that the resonances of a bell are disturbed when you touch it.

Rather than interacting with the water molecules via a resonance, the microwaves in an oven heat the water by twisting its molecules rapidly back and forth so that they rub against one another. The molecules are heated by the molecular equivalent of sliding or dynamic friction. The choice of 2.45 gigahertz gives the water molecules about the right amount of time to twist in each direction. The precise frequency isn't important, but microwave ovens are required to operate at exactly 2.45 gigahertz so that they don't interfere with communication systems using nearby frequencies. I believe that there are 2 other frequencies allocated to microwave ovens, but only a few ovens make use of those frequencies.


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