The Science of Microwave Energy Made Visual


Since their commercial introduction nearly 50 years ago, countertop microwave ovens have become a kitchen staple, yet most people don't understand how the seemingly magical boxes work. In a new "Simple Feats of Science" video from the team over at Tested, Zeke Kossover from The Exploratorium designed an experiment to create a visual representations of the energy inside microwaves.

For the first part of the experiment, Kossover placed neon indicator lamps inside the microwave and turned it on for 10 seconds. As the microwave plate rotated, the bulbs flashed on and off as radiation passed through them. "The generator inside the microwave, called a magnetron, sends the microwave radiation inside the chamber and it bounces all around," Kossover explains. "In some places it's more powerful and in some places it's less powerful." The more energy each lamp absorbs, the brighter they glow, while others are robbed of energy by their neighbors and blink off. The turntable inside the appliance, Kossover confirms, was created to compensate for those "dead zones" and provide a more even transfer of energy to your food.

The same experiment was then repeated but this time a glass of water was added alongside the lamps. When the machine was turned on, some of the energy passed into the water molecules, interrupting the power flow through the lamps and changing their glow pattern.

For the second half of the experiment, Kossover explains why glass usually doesn't absorb microwave radiation, then uses fire to show how that can be changed. The flame from a torch makes the glass softer, which allows the charged particles in the otherwise solid glass to move around and absorb all of the energy when the machine is turned on. What happens next (spoiler alert): The absorbed energy at the weak point in the glass causes it to melt and eventually shatter.

For obvious reasons, you shouldn't try any of these experiments at home. But by the video's end, you should have a better understanding of the science that allows you to nuke a burrito. 

Images via YouTube

[h/t Laughing Squid]