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Heating With Microwaves

Heating with Microwaves

How does the ubiquitous microwave oven produce microwaves electronically, and why does food absorb them preferentially? Microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 GHz are produced by accelerating electrons. The microwaves are then used to induce an alternating electric field in the oven.

Water and some other constituents of food have a slightly negative charge at one end and a slightly positive charge at one end (called polar molecules). The range of microwave frequencies is specially selected so that the polar molecules, in trying to keep orienting themselves with the electric field, absorb these energies and increase their temperatures—called dielectric heating.

The energy thereby absorbed results in thermal agitation heating food and not the plate, which does not contain water. Hot spots in the food are related to constructive and destructive interference patterns. Rotating antennas and food turntables help spread out the hot spots.

Another use of microwaves for heating is within the human body. Microwaves will penetrate more than shorter wavelengths into tissue and so can accomplish “deep heating” (called microwave diathermy). This is used for treating muscular pains, spasms, tendonitis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Making Connections: Take-Home Experiment—Microwave Ovens

  1. Look at the door of a microwave oven. Describe the structure of the door. Why is there a metal grid on the door? How does the size of the holes in the grid compare with the wavelengths of microwaves used in microwave ovens? What is this wavelength?
  2. Place a glass of water (about 250 ml) in the microwave and heat it for 30 seconds. Measure the temperature gain (the \(\Delta \text{T}\)). Assuming that the power output of the oven is 1000 W, calculate the efficiency of the heat-transfer process.
  3. Remove the rotating turntable or moving plate and place a cup of water in several places along a line parallel with the opening. Heat for 30 seconds and measure the \(\Delta \text{T}\) for each position. Do you see cases of destructive interference?

Microwaves generated by atoms and molecules far away in time and space can be received and detected by electronic circuits. Deep space acts like a blackbody with a 2.7 K temperature, radiating most of its energy in the microwave frequency range. In 1964, Penzias and Wilson detected this radiation and eventually recognized that it was the radiation of the Big Bang’s cooled remnants.


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