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It's early morning and your bleary-eyed attention has turned to a helping of instant oatmeal. You put the bowl in the microwave, hit the start button and suddenly panic as a mini-fireworks performance goes off in your kitchen. The spoon — you forgot the spoon in the bowl!
While movies might have you believe this electric scenario can lead to a fiery explosion, the truth is that placing a spoon in the microwave is not necessarily dangerous. But why exactly does metal generate sparks when subjected to one of the miracles of mid-20th century technology?
Microwave - Works - Relies - Device - Magnetron
To answer that, we need to first understand how a microwave works. The little oven relies on a device called a magnetron, a vacuum tube through which a magnetic field is made to flow. The device spins electrons around and produces electromagnetic waves with a frequency of 2.5 gigahertz (or 2.5 billion times per second), Aaron Slepkov, a physicist at Trent University in Ontario, told Live Science.
Related: What Are Microwaves?
Material - Frequencies - Gigahertz - Frequency - Water
For every material, there are particular frequencies at which it absorbs light particularly well, he added, and 2.5 gigahertz happens to be this frequency for water. Since most things we eat are filled with water, those foods will absorb energy from the microwaves and heat up.
Interestingly, 2.5 gigahertz is not the most efficient frequency for warming water, Slepkov said. That's because the company that invented the microwave, Raytheon, noticed that the highly efficient frequencies were too good at their job, he noted. Water molecules in the top layer of something like soup would absorb all the heat, so only the first few millionths of an inch would boil and leave the water underneath stone cold.
Metal - Microwaves - Material - Electrons - Material
Now, about that sparking metal. When microwaves interact with a metallic material, the electrons on the material's surface get sloshed around, Slepkov...
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