Microwave Magma: a lava flow of liquid Pyrex
A guy who repairs microwave ovens once told me that
an oven burned a hole through a Pyrex measuring cup. The cup
had boiled dry, and apparently the microwaves attacked
the glass. Yet glass is mostly transparent to microwaves, so it shouldn't
heat up. WTF?!!
Then I remembered a little trick that physics teachers perform. First
they connect a glass rod to 120VAC cables. Then they heat the glass rod
with a blow torch until it becomes red hot between the electrical
connections. Glass is full of sodium or boron ions (charged atoms,) and
glass becomes a conductor when softened. The ion charges become unlocked
and movable. As it's heated with the torch, the red hot glass suddenly
draws significant current from the electric outlet, it turns yellow hot,
then white, then incandescent
blue-white. It burns in half (if your circuit breaker doesn't trip
For a moment it acts like a light-bulb, but with a glass as the
Hmmm. So... if something were to heat a tiny spot on the glass to
hot... the glass would become a good absorber of microwaves? It then
quickly become white hot, heating the surrounding glass to red hot, which
would also absorb microwaves and begin heating. An "outbreak" of melting
would occur, like a microwave-powered forest fire slowly moving through
the glass. It only
needs a trigger. (Also the oven needs to be empty of every other
otherwise most of the wattage will end up elsewhere, rather than in the
glass we wish to melt.)
Torch a little hotspot...
...pop it in the ol' nuker
...sit back and enjoy.
It works great! Just use some method to heat a small spot on the rim of a
pyrex custard dish to red hot, slam it instantly into the oven and hit
"start." The tiny red glow will increase wildly. Just remember to shut
it down before the advancing "lava flow" runs to the bottom of your oven
and burns off the paint. Obviously this is somewhat dangerous as a demo.
If you don't already know the hazards (such as trapped internal strains
and high-velocity shrapnel), then messing with this procedure would be
I found a hunk of porus red rock used as "decorative stone"
under some shrubbery. I'm told that it's probably slag from the iron
industry. Would the stuff turn conductive when hot? Lets find out! I
put it on a small overturned flower pot in the oven, then heated a small
spot to orange heat, then slammed the door and started it up. The orange
heat died away. It seemingly went dead. But then my intuition kicked in:
wouldn't the surface radiate away the energy, while deeper within, the
material was still absorbing microwaves like crazy? The hot region...
should MIGRATE! It should move into the center of the rock where plenty
of RF is heating it, but where it's surrounded with nice insulating,
non-microwave-absorbing rock. Let's let it cook and see what happens.
Hmmm. Inside the pores in the rock I see something red. Now it's yellow.
Now there's a crevice. The whole side of the small rock splits open,
collapses, revealing the interior of a white hot miniature magma chamber.
An orange river of magma pours forth! I stop the oven, and the flow halts
before it gets to the bottom. Through the open door I can feel the
radiating heat on my face. Hope it doesn't set the painted metal walls on
Next I triggered some heating in a small piece of obsidian.
I hoped to re-liquify some actual lava, rather than melting the manmade
materials above. But I didn't remember an important fact: Hawaiian
volcanos slurp outwards, but magma from American volcanos is more like a
white hot jet engine filled with powdered glass... because American lava
is full of dissolved gas. Sure enough, the black obsidian melted in the
microwave oven. Sure enough, it expanded into a large white puff of glass
foam, sort of like a popped popcorn kernel.
Find a bottle that's short enough to stand upright in the oven. I
recommend "Red Stripe" Jamaican ale. (Grin.) Yes, with care you can
heat a spot
on the glass bottle to dull red
heat but without shattering the bottle. And yes, the microwave output of
your oven will then raise it to incandescent white hot, melting a hole
right through which grows larger and larger. And yes, during cooling the
bottle will shatter, launching hot fragments all over the kitchen. Keep
the oven door closed. If the bottle doesn't break, wear gloves and whack
it with a screwdriver while the door is almost shut.
Also see on Usenet:
Molten lava in your microwave
NOTICE: this one requires a source of welders' Argon.
Hobbyists discovered the joys of high voltage Argon
a few years ago. Shoot foot-long lighting bolts from your fingers!
since a microwave oven is a high voltage environment, what will happen?
I tried nuking some pure argon in a round flask. Nuthin. RATS! But
years later at a hobbyist meeting
I wondered what would happen if the "plasma pool" experiment was performed
in pure argon? I set up a piece of Carbon Veil (carbon fibers) in a shot
glass, inside a trash bag, inside my microwave oven. I inflated it with
argon and ran the oven. A spherical white lightning ball winked into
existence at the carbon, then rose upwards buzzing. Yay!
The Argon needs a sharp conductive "igniter" to get going.
During WEIRD GENIUS REAL
SCIENCE I tried some extremely pure argon in a spherical glass flask
with a tiny piece of aluminum foil as an igniter inside. (The argon used
previously had quite a bit of air mixed in.) Hit the button. WAAAA! THE
FLASK FILLS WITH BLUE WHITE LIGHTNING! Tiny bright lightning filaments!
And afterwards the flask was full of transparent orange gas.
So next, I put a little bit of argon in a white kitchen trash bag, threw
a piece of carbon fiber, then squeezed out the argon (to flush any
nitrogen totally out.) Then I filled half the bag with argon, tied it off
with a plastic
tie, and stuffed it into the oven. Close the door. Hit the start button.
Ten seconds of stunning noise, lights, and patterns, and the small
audience broke into spontaneous applause, because...
- First the ENTIRE OVEN FILLED WITH JITTERING LIGHTING BOLTS
- Next the bag started melting and collapsing, holes appeared
- The lightning spewed right into the air through the holes as the bag
- The lightning remaining in the bag turned into bright turquoise plasma
- As the bag entirely collapsed, brilliant plasma amoebas crawled
frantically around, burning the bag and finding every last bit of
- Silence. Darkness. The stunned crowd cheers.
The patterns are easily visible with white kitchen trash bags, although a
bag might work better. Argon can be had from any welders' suppply outlet,
and a tankful costs about $20... but you need a constant-flow regulator.
These cost about $70 new. And there's a rental charge if you don't buy
your own metal tank. But man, it's worth it.
Years ago I was living with roommates, and while working in the kitchen I
noticed that the fluorescent light over the sink was about 8
inches long. A
light went on in my brain ;) because I'd always wondered what would happen
if a fluorescent tube was placed in a microwave oven. In theory the
energy should have enough voltage to ignite the mercury vapor into a
plasma, and the lamp should light. But standard ovens put out at least
500 watts, so the tiny fluorescent tube should light quite brightly, to
say the least. I'd never before encountered a fluorescent tube which was
short enough to fit in an oven. So, I pulled out the tube, stuck it in
the oven, said "THEY'RE HEEEEEERE!" , and punched the ON switch. Sure
enough, the kitchen was lit up by a blue-white blaze of light coming from
the front of the microwave oven. I only let it run for about 1 second,
but this was enough to heat the fluorescent tube so it was too hot to
(Yeah yeah yeah, I know I'm reeeeeally old, and most young whippersnappers
never saw all those ads for the movie "Poltergeist," where the young
daughter looks at the screen of the misbehaving TV set and says "they're
Candle spews "Ball Lightnings"
In the late 1990s, someone on the Cold Fusion research forum
mentioned a rumor: that if you cook a lit
candle in your microwave oven,
it will emit large buzzing gouts of plasma which will crawl around on the
upper surface inside the oven. Yowza! So a large number of people tried
this... without success. Only one person saw it happen, but nobody else
could duplicate it.
Finally someone on another forum discovered the secret: high oven power,
and carbon impurities!
If your microwave oven can put out significantly more than 500 watts, and
if you stick a bunch of charred toothpick fragments in the top of a lit
candle... then sure enough, the candle will intermittently spit out
orange "flames" made of plasma. The plasma rises immediately to the top
of the oven and crawls around. When it winks out, the candle will emit
Over many months, several people discovered easier ways to trigger the
production of these "microwave plasmoids," including using graphite rods
from mechanical pencils, or even using a lit cigarette. Check out the
Cuppa burning plasma
Electric arcs can develop inside a microwave. The strength of the e-field
inside the oven chamber can be described as "high voltage." Once a
high-volt electric arc
has been triggered, it will absorb energy from the microwave field.
can break loose and fly around the oven like a "ball lightning." One way
to trigger this effect is described above: place a lit candle
inside the oven. Use a wide and stubby "votive candle" and stick some
short pieces of charred toothpick into the top of the candle to
supply some "seeds" of carbon (or ions?) for initial arc
A wandering electric arc can be captured in an upside-down container, J.L
Naudin has some GIFs of this effect on
his site. I tried it with a Pyrex
measuring cup and it works! The cup became quite hot after only a few
seconds of contact with the "plasma", so perhaps you shouldn't run it for
very long. Or, if you have an old oven that you don't mind destroying,
find out what happens when you run it for many minutes. Maybe you can
melt the cup into incandescent glass-lava. [NEW: after about 30 seconds
the cup goes "snap" and falls apart into shards. Apparently the plasma
is as hot as a blow torch, and it shatters the glass.]
I supported the inverted cup-measure on three small paper cups. My candle
was about 1in tall and 1in wide. I stuck several pieces of charred
toothpicks into the top, lit the candle, then placed it below the glass
container and shut the door.
The oven ran for a short time before the candle flame began creating
eruptions of plasma. (If yours doesn't work, move the candle to another
spot in order to locate a "hotspot.") Some of the plasma flickers blew
away because of the oven fan and were lost, but finally one rose into the
glass mug. The "plasma pool" fills half the cup and makes a loud 120Hz
buzzing noise. It initially is dull orange, but then it changes color to
pinkish blue. This color resembles the color of a glassblower's torch
when borosilicate glass is being heated. Berhaps it's boron emission
lines, or perhaps the color is associated with nitrogen/oxygen emission.
I used honey to adhere some salt (NaCl) to the inner
of the pyrex
cup in hopes that I'd see some yellow Sodium light. This works well. At
first the captured plasma blob turned pinkish blue, but then a wave of
yellow/orange light passed through it. This effect repeated several
times, and I suspect that salt crystals are falling off the glass surface
and passing through the plasma, releasing sodium ions as they go. Other
salts to try: salt replacement (potassium chloride), copper sulfate,
borax, epsom salts, perhaps even strontium chloride for red color. Search
for info about fireworks colorants.
See Matt Crowley's paper on Bigger
LESS WISE EXPERIMENT:
Years ago there was a news story about a new kind of efficient light
source: a quartz capsule of sulfur which was blasted with microwaves.
What will happen if the above salt crystals are replaced with powdered
sulfur? Blasts of intense white light? I haven't tried it yet. [NOW I
DID! No brilliant light. Instead, the plasma forms, then the sulfur
reacts with air to create a cloud of acrid gas. Sulfuric acid?!!
Suddenly I find that I can't breathe the air in my kitchen. Hold
nose, turn on the fans, and leave the house at a run!]
To try next: put a tiny hole in the upside-down glass cup (or perhaps use
a chemist's funnel.) Will the pool of plasma drain out upwards through
Or will the oven keep making more plasma as bits leak out? If I had a
ceramic tube, could I guide the plasma through a hole and outside the
oven? Home-built plasma torch!!
Snifter of Neon While working on a microwave article for an
encyclopedia decades ago, it crossed my mind that it might be possible to
map the pattern of RF energy in the oven by filling it with low pressure
gas. The gas would glow in proportion to the RF electric field in various
parts of the oven's volume. (There are better ways to do this, some
below.) This would be an involved bit of construction to pull off, so I
did the next best thing. I grabbed a big bag of NE-2 neon pilot lights
and stuck them into a wineglass, hoping that this small volume would show
some patterns when the glass was rotated by the oven's turntable. I
filled the glass with water, to give the oven something to heat so it
wouldn't be damaged by the small load presented by the bulbs. I ran the
oven, and the bulbs glowed REALLY BRIGHT. As the turntable turned,
various bulbs extinguished and others lit up. However, I could see no
coherent patterns. When I emptied the glass, I discovered that several of
the bulbs were stuck together. The short metal leads of some bulbs had
melted into the glass of adjacent ones. Also, several of the bulbs had
small holes melted through their glass, and were full of water.
Apparently the plasma temperature was so high that it heated the glass to
melting. Or, possibly some corona discharges developed between the inside
and outside of the bulbs and burned through the glass. Hot glass is
conductive, so the arc would continue once started.
I'd seen electrical flames produced by microwave ovens before. In the
strong RF field, even the tiniest flame will absorb a large percent of the
many-hundred-watts oven output and grow large. Thousand watt candle? So,
I decided to try initiating an electrical flame-discharge intentionally.
I tore aluminum foil into 2" squares, crumpled it lightly so it didn't lay
flat, then placed it on the oven turntable with the two foil pieces
adjacent to each other and in gentle contact. Sure enough, when the oven
was turned on there was a loud buzz and a bright light, and a flame
erupted from the contact point between the two pieces of foil. When I
looked in on them, I found that the brief flame had eaten a bite about the
size of a dime out of both pieces.
Note: on some ovens the air from the fan will blow the foil around. DON'T
SEAL UP THE FAN OUTLET!!! Instead, tape the foil down to the glass
turntable. The air from the fan is hot because that fan is
being used to cool the magnetron tube. If you block up the fan, the
microwave generator will have a meltdown!
Miscellaneous Light Bulb in the Microwave
My 8" fluorescent tube isn't the only light producer. Another classic
u-oven experiment is to cook a standard incandescent bulb briefly on
"high". A 100W bulb will light up with more than normal brightness.
If you have a newer oven with rating over 800W, include a glass of water
in the oven, otherwise the filament support wires will instantly melt and
spoil your fun. Even with the water, don't run this for very long,
since ALL the lightbulb wires glow white
hot, not just the filament. This could shatter the bulb. For best
results, buy a transparent bulb rather than a frosted bulb, then watch
what happens inside.
If you include a glass of water, the bulb makes purple discharges. If you
DON'T include water, the bulb makes many colors as the metal wires melt or
turn into incandescing vapor. I've had the glass of bulbs be melted and
burst *outwards.* Apparently the pressure in the bulb rapidly becomes
higher than atmospheric pressure.
There is an interesting bit of physics here: first the filament and its
supporting wires glow white hot, but then they cool again. Bright blue
beams leap from the tips of the filament supports and extend outwards to
the glass, with
bright "stars" of incandescence at the tips of the wires (many watts of
Saint Elmo's Fire, like Nikola Tesla's 'carbon button' lamps!) This is a
plasma discharge in the argon/nitrogen gas that is found inside all
standard light bulbs. It's similar to Plasma Globe
devices such as "eye of the storm", but 500 watts worth, which heats the
glass red hot, and may melt the tips of the steel filament supports, or
soften the glass so it is crushed by external air pressure! Another one:
elgersmad suggests trying xenon flash tubes.
Note that most of these
objects become intensely hot, so don't prop them up on a plastic object.
And as usual, if this
damages the microwave generator in your oven, don't come whining to ME!
You know the risks, or you wouldn't be messing with this stuff. Go buy a
huge old microwave oven for $5 at a garage sale, experiment with THAT.)
Better check for door-leaks first!
Mapping the Energy Nodes
Microwave ovens cook unevenly because a pattern of standing waves forms
inside the oven chamber, and the pattern creates an array of hotspots
throughout the oven's volume. An operating frequency of around 2000 MHZ
will produce a wavelength of around 10cm, and the hotspots should be at
halfwave points, or every 5cm, but in a complex 3D pattern. I'd always
wondered how this could be visualized. Perhaps fill the entire oven with
raw eggwhites, then let the oven cook them into an interesting, white,
rubbery 3D sculpture? Or fill the oven with solid wax, and let the RF
hotspots melt out a 3D structure of holes? Finally someone figured it
Alistair Steyn-Ross and Alister Riddell, STANDING WAVES IN
A MICROWAVE OVEN, The Physics Teacher, October 1990, Vol. 28 No. 7
Steyn-Ross and Riddell were stimulated to investigate the pattern of
melted cheese on a "mu-oven" cooked pizza. They hit on the use of Cobalt
Chloride soaked paper. When wet, CoCl solution is pink, but turns sky-
blue when dry. (It's sometimes sold as "weather indicator" paper.) They
discovered that this worked beautifully, and a large square of the paper
would give varying patterns of pink and blue when supported at different
heights on a tile of cork within the oven. The pattern is temporary, and
disappears as the paper dries entirely. Also, cobalt chloride is
poisonous, and should not be used around young kids.
More recently, J. E. Slone of Virginia tells me that thermal FAX paper can
be used for the same thing if is is slightly moistened. When placed on an
insulating plate within the microwave oven, the hotspots heat the water
to boiling which creates a permanent image of the standing wave pattern.
Kool! Both of the above experiments will only work if your oven lacks a
"stirrer," a fan which wiggles the hotspots and spreads them out.
If your oven has a rotating turntable, it usually lacks a stirrer.