If you've ever accidentally left a fork on the plate of food you're heating up, you know that metal and microwaves don't play so nicely together. Mini-lightening bolts are pretty, to be sure, but a bit frightening when they're in your kitchen. Ever wonder why in the world this happens?
This question proved a bit trickier to answer than we had first supposed! Microwave ovens work by electromagnetic radiation. A transmitter inside the microwave (like a mini radio-tower) sets up an electromagnetic field, which sends out microwaves of radiation.
These microwaves hit the water molecules inside your food and make them start wiggling around. This motion creates heat, and voila! Your food gets hot!
Part of the problem with metals is that they are a lot more solid than food. As food gets hot, water just converts into steam and the energy gets released. As the molecules inside a piece of aluminum foil heat up, they don't have anywhere to go. The metal heats up very rapidly and will eventually catch on fire. By the way, some manufacturers of packaged foods take advantage of this by wrapping their food product in a layer of foil that gets just hot enough in the cooking time to help the food to cook evenly and completely. Anyone have a Hot Pocket lately?!
Depending on their shape and surface smoothness, some metal objects will reflect the microwaves instead of absorbing them...which then bounce off the metal in the walls...which then bounce off the object again...and so on until eventually the transmitter itself overheats and becomes damaged.
Another problem is that metals are electrically conductive. If the object has pointy bits, like a fork or the metal filigree on a fancy plate, electrons collect at the edges. When enough electrons build up, an arc can jump between the metal and the electromagnetic transmitter. This is what creates that mini lightening show in your microwave!
In summary, don't put metal in a microwave. You're not going to burn your house down, but you could do damage to your microwave and give yourself a good scare in the process!
Any scientists in our midst who want to correct our amateur science or shed more light on the situation?!
For more information:
• Why No Metal in Microwave Ovens? from Suite 101
• Why Can't You Put Metal in Microwave Ovens? from McGraw-Hill's Access Science
• Metal in Microwaves from CalTech
Related: Fact or Fiction? Exploding Water in the Microwave
(Image: Flickr member Stan licensed under Creative Commons)