Tech In Plain Sight: Microwave Ovens

Our homes are full of technological marvels, and, as a Hackaday reader, we are betting you know the basic ideas behind a microwave oven even if you haven’t torn one apart for transformers and magnetrons. So we aren’t going to explain how the magnetron rotates water molecules to produce uniform dielectric heating. However, when we see our microwave, we think about two things: 1) this thing is one of the most dangerous things in our house and 2) what makes that little turntable flip a different direction every time you run the thing?

First, a Little History

Westinghouse Powercaster which could, among other things, toast bread in six seconds

People think that Raytheon engineer Percy Spenser, the chief of their power tube division, noticed that while working with a magnetron he found his candy bar had melted. This is, apparently, true, but Spenser wasn’t the first to notice. He was, however, the first to investigate it and legend holds that he popped popcorn and blew up an egg on a colleague’s face (this sounds like an urban legend about “egg on your face” to us). The Raytheon patent goes back to 1945.

However, cooking with radio energy was not a new idea. In 1933, Westinghouse demonstrated cooking foods with a 10 kW 60 MHz transmitter (jump to page 394). According to reports, the device could toast bread in six seconds.  The same equipment could beam power and — reportedly — exposing yourself to the field caused “artificial fever” and an experience like having a cocktail, including a hangover on overindulgence. In fact, doctors would develop radiothermy to heat parts of the body locally, but we don’t suggest spending an hour in the device.

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The Device That Won WW2: A History Of The Cavity Magnetron

[Curious Droid] is back with a history lesson on one of the most important inventions of the 20th century: The cavity magnetron. Forged in the fighting of World War II, the cavity magnetron was the heart of radar signals used to identify attacking German forces.

The magnetron itself was truly an international effort, with scientists from many countries providing scientific advances. The real breakthrough came with the work of  [John Randall] and [Harry Boot], who produced the first working prototype of a cavity magnetron. The device was different than the patented klystron, or even earlier magnetron designs. The cavity magnetron uses physical cavities and a magnetic field to create microwave energy.  The frequency is determined by the size and shape of the cavities.

While the cavity magnetron had been proven to work, England was strapped by the war effort and did not have the resources to continue the work. [Henry Tizzard] brought the last prototype to the USA where it was described as “the most valuable cargo ever brought to our shores”. The cavity magnetron went on to be used throughout the war in RADAR systems both air and sea.

Today, many military RADAR systems use klystrons or traveling wave tube amplifiers due to requirements for accurate frequency pulses.  But the cavity magnetron still can be found in general and commercial aviation RADAR systems, as well as the microwave ovens we all know and love.

Check the video out after the break.

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Ku-Go: The World War II Death Ray

Historians may note that World War II was the last great “movie war.” In those days, you could do many things that are impossible today, yet make for great movie drama. You can’t sneak a fleet of ships across the oceans anymore. Nor could you dig tunnels right under your captor’s nose. Another defining factor is that it doesn’t seem we seek out superweapons anymore.

A Churchill Bullshorn plough for clearning minefields — one of Hobart’s “Funnies”

Sure, we develop better planes, tanks, submarines, and guns. But we aren’t working on anything — that we know of — as revolutionary as a rocket, an atomic bomb, or even radar was back in the 1940s. The Germans worked on Wunderwaffe, including guided missiles, jets, suborbital rocket bombers, and a solar-powered space mirror to burn terrestrial targets. Everyone was working on a nuclear bomb, of course. The British had Hobart’s Funnies as well as less successful entries like the Panjandrum — a ten-foot rocket-driven wheel of explosives.

Death Ray

Perhaps the holy grail of all the super weapons — both realized and dreamed of was the “death ray.” Of course, Tesla claimed to have one that didn’t use rays, but particles, but no one ever successfully built one and there was debate if it would work. Tesla didn’t like the term death ray, partly because it wasn’t a ray at all, but also because it required a huge power plant and, therefore, wasn’t mobile. He envisioned it as a peacekeeping defensive weapon, rendering attacks so futile that no one would dare attempt them.

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Using An Old Satellite To See The Earth In A New Light

Snooping in on satellites is getting to be quite popular, enough so that the number of people advancing the state of the art — not to mention the wealth of satellites transmitting signals in the clear — has almost made the hobby too easy. An SDR, a homebrew antenna, and some off-the-shelf software, and you too can see weather satellite images on your screen in real time.

But where’s the challenge? That seems to be the question [dereksgc] asked and answered by tapping into S-band telemetry from an obsolete satellite. Most satellite hunters focus on downlinks in the L-band or even the VHF portion of the spectrum, which are within easy reach of most RTL-SDR dongles. However, the Coriolis satellite, which was launched in 2003, has a downlink firmly in the S-band, which at 2.2-GHz puts it just outside the high end of an RTL-SDR. To work around this, [dereksgc] bought a knock-off HackRF SDR and couple it with a wideband low-noise amplifier (LNA) of his own design. The dish antenna is also homebrewed from a used 1.8-m dish and a custom helical antenna for the right-hand circular polarized downlink signal.

As the video below shows, receiving downlink signals from Coriolis with the rig wasn’t all that difficult. Even with manually steering the dish, [dereksgc] was able to record a couple of decent passes with SDR#. Making sense of the data from WINDSAT, a passive microwave polarimetric radiometer that’s the main instrument that’s still working on the satellite, was another matter. Decoded with SatDump and massaged with Gimp, the microwave images of Europe are at least recognizable, mostly due to Italy’s distinctive shape.

Despite the distortion, seeing the planet’s surface via the microwaves emitted by water vapor is still pretty cool. If more traditional weather satellite images are what you’re looking for, those are pretty cool too.

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The Cheap And Available Microwave Playground

There’s something of a mystique about RF construction at the higher frequencies, it’s seen as a Black Art only practiced by elite wizards. In fact, UHF and microwave RF circuitry is surprisingly simple and easy to understand, and given the ready availability of low-noise block downconverters (LNBs) for satellite TV reception there’s even a handy source of devices to experiment on. It’s a subject on which [Polprog] has brought together a handy guide.

A modern LNB has some logic for selecting one of a pair of local oscillators and to use vertical or horizontal polarization, but remains otherwise a very simple device. There’s an oscillator, a mixer, and an RF amplifier, each of which uses microwave transistors that can with a little care be repurposed. The page demonstrates a simple transmitter, but it’s possible to create more powerful  devices by using the amplifier stage “in reverse”.

Meanwhile the oscillator can be moved by loading the dielectric resonators with PVC sleeving, and the stripline filters can even be modified with a fine eye for soldering and some thin wire. Keep an eye out in thrift stores and yard sales for old satellite dishes, and you can give it a go yourself. It’s a modern equivalent of the UHF tuner hacking enjoyed by a previous generation.

Nuke Your Own Uranium Glass Castings In The Microwave

Fair warning: if you’re going to try to mold uranium glass in a microwave kiln, you might want to not later use the oven for preparing food. Just a thought.

A little spicy…

Granted, uranium glass isn’t as dangerous as it might sound. Especially considering its creepy green glow, which almost seems to be somehow self-powered. The uranium glass used by [gigabecquerel] for this project is only about 1% U3O8, and isn’t really that radioactive. But radioactive or not, melting glass inside a microwave can be problematic, and appropriate precautions should be taken. This would include making the raw material for the project, called frit, which was accomplished by smacking a few bits of uranium glass with a hammer. We’d recommend a respirator and some good ventilation for this step.

The powdered uranium glass then goes into a graphite-coated plaster mold, which was made from a silicone mold, which in turn came from a 3D print. The charged mold then goes into a microwave kiln, which is essentially an insulating chamber that contains a silicon carbide crucible inside a standard microwave oven. Although it seems like [gigabecquerel] used a commercially available kiln, we recently saw a DIY metal-melting microwave forge that would probably do the trick.

The actual casting process is pretty simple — it’s really just ten minutes in the microwave on high until the frit gets hot enough to liquefy and flow into the mold. The results were pretty good; the glass medallion picked up the detail in the mold, but also the crack that developed in the plaster. [gigabecquerel] thinks that a mold milled from solid graphite would work better, but he doesn’t have the facilities for that. If anyone tries this out, we’d love to hear about it.

Radio Waves Bring The Heat With This Microwave-Powered Forge

Depending on the chef’s skill, many exciting things can happen in the kitchen. Few, however, grab as much immediate attention as when a piece of foil or a fork accidentally (?) makes it into the microwave oven. That usually makes for a dramatic light show, accompanied by admonishment about being foolish enough to let metal anywhere near the appliance. So what’s the deal with this metal-melting microwave?

As it turns out, with the proper accessories, a standard microwave makes a dandy forge. Within limits, anyway. According to [Denny], who appears to have spent a lot of time optimizing his process, the key is not so much the microwave itself, but the crucible and its heat-retaining chamber. The latter is made from layers of ceramic insulating blanket material, of the type used to line kilns and furnaces. Wrapped around a 3D printed form and held together with many layers of Kapton tape, the ceramic is carefully shaped and given a surface finish of kiln wash.

While the ceramic chamber’s job is to hold in heat, the crucible is really the business end of the forge. Made of silicon carbide, the crucible absorbs the microwave energy and transduces it into radiant heat — and a lot of it. [Denny] shares several methods of mixing silicon carbide grit with sodium silicate solution, also known as water glass, as well as a couple of ways of forming the crucible, including some clever printed molds.

As for results, [Denny] has tried melting all the usual home forge metals, like aluminum and copper. He has also done brass, stainless steel, and even cast iron, albeit in small quantities. His setup is somewhat complicated — certainly more complex than the usual propane-powered forge we’ve seen plenty of examples of — but it may be more suitable for people with limited access to a space suitable for lighting up a more traditional forge. We’re not sure we’d do it in the kitchen, but it’s still a nice skill to keep in mind.

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