How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Microwave Ovens
Page 5 of 13 (127 Questions and Answers)

635. What does the inside of a microwave oven look like? Please show illustrations. — Dade County, FL
A microwave oven contains (1) a magnetron that produces the microwaves, (2) a high voltage direct current power supply (a high voltage transformer, a set of rectifiers, and a capacitor) that provides power to the magnetron, and (3) a computerized control system that turns the power supply and magnetron on and off. A metal pipe connects the magnetron to the cooking chamber of the oven. While there are photographs and drawings of the insides of a microwave oven in my book, I can't reproduce them here because of copyright issues.

650. If microwave cookers are so energy-efficient, why can't similar machines be used as hot water heaters or in central heating systems? - GB
Microwave ovens transfer about 50% of the electric energy they receive from the electric company to the food. Conventional ovens transfer only something like 10%. Cooking just isn't a very energy efficient process because you're trying to get heat into an object from outside that object. In contrast, an electric space heater transfers 100% of the electric power it receives to the room around it. Home heating is much more energy efficient because you're getting heat into an object from inside that object. In effect, your microwave oven is also 100% efficient at heating your room—every bit of electric energy it consumes eventually enters your room as heat. But it's an expensive sort of "space heater" and you do better just to use conventional heating systems.

653. I recently acquired a microwave that "doesn't cook as fast as it used to." Does this sound right? What type of service might need to be performed? - W
It is possible for a microwave to lose cooking speed. If the microwave source isn't able to produce as intense microwaves as before or if it doesn't turn on reliably and steadily, it won't cook as fast. For the source to produce less intense microwaves, the high voltage power supply would probably have to be weak. Its storage capacitor could have failed or one or more of its high voltage diodes could have burned out. According to a reader, the most likely cause of weak cooking in a microwave oven is a failed capacitor—with no ability to store separated charge in its capacitor, the oven produces pulsing rather than steady microwaves and delivers less average power. I suppose that the magnetron itself could be dying, with the most common failure (according to that same reader) being shorting out, the result of electromigration of the filament material. For the source to not turn on reliably, it would probably have to have a bad connection to the power line. One good possibility is that the relay that turns on power to the high voltage power supply is not making good contact.

Listen to the microwave as it operates on a medium setting. It should cycle on and off every five or ten seconds. You should hear it hum softly during the on half of the cycle and then stop humming during the off half of the cycle. Different power levels simply vary the fractions of on time and off time. If you don't hear the hum or the hum is intermittent, then something is probably wrong with the power relay or with something else in the high voltage power supply. If the relay is flaky, a little cleaning of its contacts may cure the problem. Be careful of the high voltage capacitor, which can store a lethal charge even when the unit is unplugged.

654. In a microwave oven, does food cook from the inside out or outside in? — KS, Essex, England
If the piece of food isn't too large, it all cooks at once. The microwaves that heat the food pass deep into it and they deposit energy in every part of the food simultaneously. Only if the piece of food is so large that an appreciable amount of microwaves are absorbed before they reach the center will the center cook more slowly than the outside. I doubt that this shielding of the center is a problem with foods small enough to fit inside a normal microwave oven. However, the microwaves in a microwave oven aren't perfectly uniform, so that some parts of a meal will cook a bit faster than others. That's why it's important to move the food about during cooking to achieve uniform heating throughout.

681. How does radar absorbent materials work. How effective is stealth technology? — DP, Scottsbluff, NE
I believe that most radar absorbing materials are partially conducting plastic composites. As a microwave from the radar transmitter penetrates these composites, the electric field in that wave drives charges back and forth through the composites. Since the composites don't conductor electricity well, they turn the wave's energy into thermal energy and thereby absorb it. A similar effect occurs for light waves when you shine them on a pile of powdered charcoal. (According to David Ingham, some radar absorbing materials include lossy magnetic materials—materials such as ferrite and carbonyl iron that respond to the magnetic field in a microwave.) Because there is always some reflection whenever an electromagnetic wave enters a material that slows the wave down, stealth aircraft are also careful to deflect the reflected wave away from the radar transmitter so that its receiver won't detect the return wave. In fact, these materials can be corrugated so that any microwaves hitting them reflect into the corrugations and have many opportunities to be absorbed. As I understand it, the microwaves that return to the radar receiver from a stealth plane are remarkably weak. I wouldn't be surprised if a whole stealth plane reflected less microwaves back at the radar unit than would reflect from a foil chewing gum wrapper.

690. Don't microwaves change the molecular structure and composition of food, by ejecting some electrons from atoms and forming cancer-causing free radicals? If I should stand away from a microwave to avoid possible leakage, why would I eat microwaved food?
Microwaves don't affect the molecular structure of the food, except through the thermal effects we associate with normal cooking (e.g., denaturing of proteins with heat and caramelizing of sugars). That's because, like all electromagnetic waves, microwaves are emitted and absorbed as particles called "photons." The energy in a microwave photon is so tiny that it can't cause any chemical rearrangement in a molecule. Instead, it can only add a tiny amount of heat to a water molecule. During the microwave cooking process, microwave photons stream into the food and heat it up. But millions of them would have to work together in order to cause non-thermal chemical changes in the food molecules and they don't normally do that. The photons can only work together if there is a conducting material, such as a metal wire, inside the oven. In that case, the photons can accelerate mobile electric charges along the conducting paths and create sparks. Such sparks can cause chemical damage, but nothing worse than the chemical damage caused by scorching food with a flame or broiler. Even if your microwave is full of sparks for some reason, I doubt that the food will be any worse for you than it would be if you cooked it over an open flame or barbecue.

701. There is an experiment involving grapes and microwaves that we found on the internet. If a grape is cut in half—with a piece of skin attached between the two halves—and it is then microwaves, sparks are produced. What is happening? — GB, Antioch, CA
This experiment is described in Fun with Grapes - A Case Study. While I haven't tried it yet myself, I believe I know why it works. Grape juice is somewhat able to conduct electricity and the two halves of the grape are connected by a weak conducting path: the skin bridge. When the microwave oven is turned on, the microwaves not only heat the water in the grapes, they also push a few mobile electric charges back and forth through the skin bridge from one side of the grape to the other. This current releases energy as it passes through the narrow bridge and it heats the bridge extremely hot. The bridge soon catches fire and the electric current driven by the microwaves begins to pass through the flame. When current passes through a gas, it tends to ionize that gas (remove electrons from the gas atoms) so that the gas itself begins to conduct electricity. When current flows through atmospheric pressure air, it forms a brilliant arc. In this case, the arc that you see is powered by the microwaves as they push electric charges back and forth from one side of the grape to the other. An excellent set of movies showing this and other microwave oven experiments appears at

702. Why don't microwaves get stuck in the food we put in the microwave oven?
Microwaves are like light—both are electromagnetic waves and both move extremely quickly. While it is possible to trap a light wave briefly between two mirrors, that wave will eventually be absorbed or released. The same is true of a microwave. It's almost impossible to trap a microwave for more than 1 second, even in very exotic enclosures, so you needn't worry about them becoming trapped in food. The food simply absorbs them and turns their energy into thermal energy.

723. What is the black holey stuff on the doors of microwave ovens? Is it for looks, protection, or what? - K
The black holey stuff on the window of a microwave oven is a metal shield that keeps the microwaves inside the cooking chamber. Because the holes in this metal sheeting are so much smaller than the wavelengths of the microwaves (about 12 cm), the microwaves respond to the sheeting as though it were solid metal and they reflect almost perfectly. By keeping the microwaves inside the oven, this sheeting speeds cooking and protects you from the microwaves.

724. Why is it bad to put metal in a microwave oven? - OR
It isn't necessarily bad to put metal in a microwave oven, but it can cause cooking problems or other trouble. Microwaves cause currents to flow in metals. In a thick piece of metal, these currents won't cause problems for the metal. However, in thin pieces of metal, the currents may heat the metal hot enough to cause a fire. Metallic decorations on fine porcelain tend to become hot enough to damage the porcelain. But even thick pieces of metal can cause problems because they tend to reflect the microwaves. That may cause cooking problems for the food nearby. For example, a potato wrapped in aluminum foil won't cook at all in a microwave oven because the foil will reflect the microwaves. The currents flowing in the metal can also produce sparks, particularly at sharp points, and these sparks can cause fires. In general, smooth and thick metallic objects such as spoons aren't a problem, but sharp or thin metallic objects such as pins or metal twist-ties are.
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