How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Question 759

Why do metal objects spark/arc in the microwave? Why don't the metal walls of the microwave spark? - JR
Like all electromagnetic waves, microwaves are composed of electric and magnetic fields. Since an electric field exerts forces on charged particles, a microwave pushes electrons back and forth through any metals it encounters. It is this motion of electrons back and forth through the metal walls of the microwave oven that allow that metal to reflect the microwaves and keep them inside the oven. If you leave a spoon in you cup of coffee as you heat it in the microwave, electrons will move back and forth through the spoon. This motion of charge will cause no problems so long as (1) the spoon can tolerate this flow of charge without overheating and (2) the spoon doesn't allow the charges at its ends to leap into the air as a spark. To keep the spoon from overheating, it must be a good conductor of electricity. Since most spoons are pretty thick, the modest currents flowing through them in the microwave will leave little energy inside them and they won't overheat. But a thin twist-tie or small bit of aluminum foil may well overheat and begin to burn. To keep the spoon from sparking, it should have smooth ends. Electrons are more likely to leave the end of a metal surface at a sharp point, so avoiding points is important. Most spoons are smooth enough that no sparks will occur. But a fork, a sharp piece of foil, or a twist-tie may well begin to emit electrons into the air as those electrons pile up at one end of the wire while the microwave oven is on. Like a spoon, the walls of the oven are good conductors of electricity and they have no sharp points. While electrons move back and forth in these walls, they simply reflect the microwaves without becoming very hot and without emitting any sparks. You'll note that the light bulb for the microwave is always outside the cooking chamber because it contains small bits of metal that would have trouble inside a microwave oven.

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