How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Microwave Ovens
Page 3 of 13 (127 Questions and Answers)

481. Does microwave cooking break molecular chains? Does any recombination of ions take place in the food and, if so, is there a possibility of eating some type of toxin formed during cooking?
The answers to all of these questions are no. Microwave cooking merely heats the water molecules, which in turn heat the food. The only molecular rearrangements that occur are those that are caused by warming the food toward the boiling temperature of water. In fact, there is less chemistry done during microwave cooking than is done in a normal oven. For example, one of the problems with microwave cooking is that food doesn't brown because the high temperatures needed to chemically modify the food molecules (and cause browning) aren't reached in microwave cooking. So you shouldn't have any fear of food cooked in a microwave oven. The microwaves don't damage it any more than heating it in boiling water would.

482. How does a microwave oven heat food?
A microwave oven uses a vacuum tube called a magnetron to create intense microwaves inside the cooking chamber. These microwaves are electromagnetic waves with a frequency of 2.45 gigahertz or 2,450,000,000 cycles per second. They are similar to normal radio waves, except that they have a higher frequency. Because of these microwaves, the electric field at any point inside the cooking chamber fluctuates back and forth 2.45 billion times each second. That means that an electrically charged particle at any point in the cooking chamber will be pulled first one way and then the other, back and forth 2.45 billion times each second. While water molecules aren't electrically charged overall, they do have electrically charged ends—one end is positively charge and the other is negatively charged. In the presence of the microwave radiation, these water molecules find themselves twisted back and forth very rapidly. As they twist, they rub against one another and friction heats them up. The water becomes hot and this hot water, in turn, cooks the food. Food that doesn't contain water (like salt or oil) won't get hot. Neither will food in which the water molecules can't turn (like ice or frozen food). That's why it's hard to defrost frozen food in a microwave.

483. Why are you required to have an item in the microwave oven while it is operating?
When a microwave oven is cooking food, electrons move rhythmically back and forth inside the magnetron tube and create the microwaves. These microwaves flow through a metal pipe and into the cooking chamber, where they are absorbed by the water in the food and thus heat the food (the twisting back and forth of the water molecules, described elsewhere on this page, not only heats the food—it also absorbs the microwaves). If there is no food in the cooking chamber, the microwaves build up in the cooking chamber until they are so intense that large numbers of them flow backward through the pipe to the magnetron. These microwaves reenter the magnetron and disrupt the motion of electrons inside it. The magnetron begins to misbehave and can be damaged as a result. To avoid such damage, you want to be sure that there is something in the cooking chamber to absorb the microwaves before they return to the magnetron and cause trouble. In short, don't run the microwave empty for any long periods of time.

490. If microwaves "bounce" or reflect inside the cooking chamber, is it important for all of the surfaces (walls) of the oven to be flat? What would happen if the cooking chamber were cylindrical or circular? Would the microwaves bounce off the walls and then cancel each other out?
A microwave oven with a cylindrical or spherical cooking chamber would have a problem with non-uniform cooking. But before I look at why, I should note that even a microwave oven with a box-like cooking chamber exhibits non-uniform cooking. That's because the microwaves that are bouncing around inside the cooking chamber are all coherent—they are parts of a single, giant wave—and they can interfere strongly with one another. That means that several reflected microwaves can cancel or enhance one another as they cross, leading to regions inside the cooking chamber that cook quickly and other regions that cook slowly. That's why it's important to move the food around the cooking chamber during cooking—so that the food cooks evenly.

If the oven's cooking chamber weren't box-like, there would be a new problem to contend with: a tendency for the microwaves to be concentrated or focused in a particular region. Just as a cylindrical or spherical mirror bends the light rays it reflects, so the curved walls of a non-boxlike cooking chamber would bend the microwaves it reflects. It would tend to focus those microwaves in particular regions (such as the center of the cylinder or sphere) so that there would certain regions inside the chamber where the microwaves would be particularly intense and cooking would proceed very quickly.

523. Who invented the microwave oven and how did he think of it?
In 1945, American engineer Percy Le Baron Spencer was working with radar equipment at Raytheon and noticed that some candy he had in his pocket had melted. Radar equipment detects objects by bouncing microwaves from them and Spencer realized that it was these microwaves that had heated the candy (as well as his body...oops!). Raytheon soon realized the potential of Spencer's discovery and began to produce the first microwave ovens: Radaranges. These early devices were large and expensive and it wasn't until 1967, when Amana, a subsidiary of Raytheon, produced the first household microwave oven, that microwave ovens became widely available.

536. How can we polarize a molecule? — AD, Manaus City, Amazonia, Brazil
Some molecules, including water, are naturally polarized. This means that they have a positively charged end and a negatively charged end. But even normally non-polar molecules such as carbon dioxide can be polarized by exposing them to strong electric fields. Electric fields exert forces on electric charges and cause the electric charges in a molecule to rearrange—the positive charges in the molecule shift in one direction and the negative charges in that molecule shift in the other. As a result of this applied electric field, the molecule acquires a polar character—a negatively charged end and positively charge end. However, this polar character disappears as soon as the electric field is removed.

540. What is a microwave and what does it do? — AH, Rochester, MN
A microwave is an electromagnetic wave with a frequency and a wavelength that are intermediate between those of a radio wave and those of light. An electromagnetic wave consists of both an electric field and a magnetic field. These two fields travel together in space and perpetually recreate one another as the wave moves forward at the speed of light. An electric field is a phenomenon that exerts forces on electric charges, while a magnetic field is a phenomenon that exerts forces on magnetic poles. Electric and magnetic fields are intimately connected, so that whenever an electric field changes, it creates a magnetic field and whenever a magnetic field changes, it creates an electric field. By combining a changing electric field and a changing magnetic field, the electromagnetic wave uses their abilities to create one another to form a self-perpetuating entity—the wave's changing electric field creates its changing magnetic field and its changing magnetic field creates its changing electric field.

If you were to freeze an electromagnetic wave at one instant and look at its structure in space, you would find that its electric and magnetic fields had a periodic spatial structure. Just as a water wave has crests and troughs, an electromagnetic wave has spatial fluctuations in its two fields. The distance between adjacent "crests" in either one of these fields is that wave's wavelength. Different types of electromagnetic waves have different wavelengths. Radio waves have long wavelengths that range from about 1 meter to hundreds or even thousands of meters and visible light has short wavelengths that range from about 400 billionths of a meter (400 nanometers) to about 750 billionths of a meter (750 nanometers). Microwaves are those electromagnetic waves with wavelengths between 1 millimeter and 1 meter. The microwaves used in microwave cooking have wavelengths of 12.2 centimeters.

Microwaves are often used to carry information in satellite communication and telephone microwave links. Whenever you see a dish antenna (a satellite dish or a communication link dish on a building or tower), you are looking at a microwave system. Astronomers use radio telescopes to look at microwave emissions from celestial objects. Radar bounces microwaves from objects to determine where they are or how fast they're moving. And microwave ovens use microwaves to add thermal energy to water molecules in order to heat food.

546. Does the volume in the cooking chamber of a microwave oven affect the rate at which it cooks the food? In other words, which cooks faster, a small microwave oven or a large one? - RP
The size of a microwave oven's cooking chamber should have little or no effect on how quickly it cooks food. The oven's magnetron tube delivers a certain amount of microwave power to the cooking chamber and virtually all of that power will eventually be absorbed in the food. It may take a few moments longer for a large cooking chamber to fill with microwaves when you first start the oven, but soon the food inside it will be exposed to the same intensity of microwaves as food cooking inside a smaller microwave oven with a similar magnetron power.

On the other hand, the magnetron's power does affect cooking speed so that an oven with a more powerful magnetron will cook food faster than one with a less powerful magnetron. The speed of cooking in a microwave oven also depends on how much food it contains because the food shares the microwave power. In general, doubling the amount of food in the microwave doubles the cooking time.

552. Can we add a section to a microwave oven that gets the food or drinks cold? - MH
Not without adding a full-blown refrigerator. While it's relatively easy to add thermal energy to food or drink, it's much harder to remove that thermal energy. Since energy is conserved, the thermal energy that you remove from the food must be transferred elsewhere. Since heat (moving thermal energy) normally flows from a hotter object to a colder object, you must make something colder than the food before the heat will leave the food. While it's possible to cool an object to a temperature lower than its surroundings, this cooling process requires a heat pump, a device that actively pumps heat from a cold object to a hot object (against its natural direction of flow). A refrigerator is such a heat pump.

561. What is the purpose of the grid on the glass door of the microwave oven?
The metal grid reflects microwaves and keeps them inside the oven. Electromagnetic waves are unable to pass through holes in conducting materials if those holes are significantly smaller than their wavelengths. The wavelengths of visible light are very short, so light has no trouble passing through the holes in this grid. But the microwaves used in the oven have wavelengths of about 12.4 cm and are unable to propagate through the grid. Thus you can see the food cook while the microwaves are trapped inside the oven.
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