Ask Hackaday: The Many Uses of Microwaves

When most think of a microwave, they think of that little magic box that you can heat food in really fast. An entire industry of frozen foods has sprung up from the invention of the household microwave oven, and it would be difficult to find a household without one. You might be surprised that microwave ovens, or reactors to be more accurate, can also be found in chemistry labs and industrial complexes throughout the world. They are used in organic synthesis – many equipped with devices to monitor the pressure and temperature while heating. Most people probably don’t know that most food production facilities use microwave-based moisture solids analyzers. And there’s even an industry that uses microwaves with acids to dissolve or digest samples quickly. In this article, we’re going to look beyond the typical magnetron / HV power supply / electronics and instead focus on some other peculiarities of microwave reactors than you might not know.

Single vs Multimode

The typical microwave oven in the millions of households across the world is known as multimode type. In these, the microwaves will take on typical wavelike behavior like we learned about in physics 101. They will develop constructive and destructive interference patterns, causing ‘hot spots’ in the cavity. A reader tipped us off to this example, where [Lenore] uses a popular Indian snack food to observe radiation distribution in a multimode microwave cavity. Because of this, you need some type of turntable to move the food around the cavity to help even out the cooking. You can avoid the use of a turn table with what is known as a mode stirrer. This is basically a metal ‘fan’ that helps to spread the microwaves throughout the cavity. They can often be found in industrial microwaves. Next time you’re in the 7-11, take a look in the top of the cavity, and you will likely see one.

Multimode microwaves also require an isolator to protect the magnetron from reflected energy. These work like a diode, and do not let any microwaves bounce back and hit the magnetron. It absorbs the reflected energy and turns it into heat. It’s important to note that all microwave energy must be absorbed in a multimode cavity. What is not absorbed by the food will be absorbed by the isolator. Eventually, all isolators will fail from the heat stress. Think about that next time you’re nuking a small amount of food with a thousand watts!

Single Mode microwaves are what you will find in chemistry and research labs. In these, the cavity is tuned to the frequency of the magnetron – 2.45GHz. This allows for a uniform microwave field. There is no interference, and therefore no hot or cold spots. The microwave field is completely homogenous. Because of this, there is no reflected energy, and no need for an isolator. These traits allow single mode microwaves to be much smaller than multimode, and usually of a much lower power as there is a 100% transfer of energy into the sample.  While most multimode microwaves are 1000+ watts, the typical single mode will be around 300 watts.

single vs multimode cavity

Power Measurement

Most microwave ovens only produce one power level. Power is measured and delivered by the amount of time the magnetron stays on. So if you were running something at 50% power for 1 minute, the magnetron would be on for a total of 30 seconds. You can measure the output power of any microwave by heating 1 liter of water at 100% power for 2 minutes. Multiply the difference in temperature by 35, and that is your power in watts.

There are other types of microwaves that control power by adjusting the current through the magnetron. This type of control is often utilized by moisture solids analyzers, where are more precise control is needed to keep samples from burning.

Have you used a microwave and an arduino for something other than cooking food? Let us know in the comments!

Thanks to [konnigito] for the tip!

One man’s microwave oven is another man’s hobby electronics store

There are loads of Internet content depicting the usefulness of salvaged innards found in defunct microwave ovens. [Mads Nielsen] is an emerging new vblogger with promising filming skills and intriguing beginner electronics content. He doesn’t bring anything new from the microwave oven to the dinner table, yet this video should be considered a primer for anybody looking to salvage components for their hobby bench. To save some time you can link in at the 5 minute mark when the feast of parts is laid out on the table. The multitude of good usable parts in these microwave ovens rolling out on curbsides, in dumpsters, and cheap at yard sales all over the country is staggering and mostly free for the picking.

The harvest here was: micro switches, X and Y rated mains capacitors, 8 amp fuse, timer control with bell and switches, slow turn geared synchronous 4 watt motor 5 rpm, high voltage capacitor marked 2100 W VAC 0.95 uF, special diodes which aren’t so useful in hobby electronics, light bulb, common mode choke, 20 watt 68 Ohm ceramic wire-wound resistor, AC fan motor with fan and thermostat cutout switches NT101 (normally closed).

All this can be salvaged and more if you find newer discarded units. Our summary continues after the break where you can also watch the video where [Mads] flashes each treasure. His trinkets are rated at 220 V but if you live in a 110 V country such components will be rated for 110 V.

Continue reading “One man’s microwave oven is another man’s hobby electronics store”

A huge microwave-powered bug zapper

This is the biggest bug zapper we’ve ever seen. It’s called the Megazap as its zapping area is 1 square meter. [Eighdot] and [Sa007] combined their talents for the build in order to help reduce the insect population around the Eth0 2012 Summer festival.

You may recall from our bug zapping light saber build that these devices work by providing two energized grids. When an insect flies between the grids it allows the potential energy to overcome the air resistance by travelling through the insect’s body. The Megazap uses a transformer from a microwave oven to source that potential. The transformer produces 2.4 kV and the current is limited by a floodlight fitted inside the microwave. The side effect of using the lamp as a limiter is that it lights up with each bug zapped, providing a bit of a light show. Don’t miss the video after the break to see some flying foes get the life shocked out of them.

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Smelting metal in your microwave oven

Grab some scrap metal and a microwave oven and you’ll be casting your own metal parts in no time. [Mikeasaurus], who is known for doing strange things like making Silly Putty magnetic or building his own spray paint bottles, doesn’t disappoint this time around. He read about microwave smelting in Popular Science and is giving it a shot himself.

The image above shows him pouring an ingot. He build an insulated brick enclosure inside of the microwave oven, then set it to go ten minutes for a 50/50 lead/tin mixture, or fifteen minutes for silver. This will vary based on the power rating of your microwave. You can see in the video after the break that the setup gave him some trouble shortly after pouring. It wasn’t a problem with the molten metal, but spontaneous combustion of the rigid foam insulation that did him in. We shouldn’t say ‘I told you so’, but that insulation says right on it that it’s flammable!

This isn’t the first time we’ve looked at casting metal melted in a microwave. Check out this other version posted back in 2005. Continue reading “Smelting metal in your microwave oven”

3-phase Jacob’s ladder

Two sparks are better than one, a sentiment that was never more blindingly illustrated than with this three-conductor Jacob’s Ladder. The build centers around three-phase power, which uses a trio of alternating current sources sharing the same frequency, but offset by 1/3 from one another. If we’re reading the schematic correctly, [Jimmy Proton] is using normal mains as a power source, then connecting three transformers and a capacitor to set up the different phases. Two of the transformers, which were pulled from microwave ovens, are wired in antiparallel, with their cores connected to each other. The third transform is connected in series on one leg of the circuit.

The video after the break starts with the satisfying hum of power, only to be outdone by the wild sparks that traverse the air gap between conductors of the ladder. After seeing the first demonstration we kind of expected something to start on fire but it looks like all is well. We’ll probably stick to a less complicated version of Jacob’s Ladder.

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