There is a story circulating by email about a 26 year old man who heated a cup of water in a microwave oven and had it “explode in his face” when he took it out. He suffered serious burns as a result. Is this possible and, if so, how did it happen? — JJ, Kirksville, Missouri
Yes, this sort of accident can and does happen. The water superheated and then boiled violently when disturbed. Here’s how it works:
Water can always evaporate into dry air, but it normally only does so at its surface. When water molecules leave the surface faster than they return, the quantity of liquid water gradually diminishes. That’s ordinary evaporation. However, when water is heated to its boiling temperature, it can begin to evaporate not only from its surface, but also from within. If a steam bubble forms inside the hot water, water molecules can evaporate into that steam bubble and make it grow larger and larger. The high temperature is necessary because the pressure inside the bubble depends on the temperature. At low temperature, the bubble pressure is too low and the surrounding atmospheric pressure smashes it. That’s why boiling only occurs at or above water’s boiling temperature. Since pressure is involved, boiling temperature depends on air pressure. At high altitude, boiling occurs at lower temperature than at sea level.
But pay attention to the phrase “If a steam bubble forms” in the previous paragraph. That’s easier said than done. Forming the initial steam bubble into which water molecules can evaporate is a process known as “nucleation.” It requires a good number of water molecules to spontaneously and simultaneously break apart from one another to form a gas. That’s an extraordinarily rare event. Even in a cup of water many degrees above the boiling temperature, it might never happen. In reality, nucleation usually occurs at a defect in the cup or an impurity in the water—anything that can help those first few water molecules form the seed bubble. When you heat water on the stove, the hot spots at the bottom of the pot or defects in the pot bottom usually assist nucleation so that boiling occurs soon after the boiling temperature is reached. But when you heat pure water in a smooth cup using a microwave oven, there may be nothing present to help nucleation occur. The water can heat right past its boiling temperature without boiling. The water then superheats—its temperature rising above its boiling temperature. When you shake the cup or sprinkle something like sugar or salt into it, you initiate nucleation and the water then boils violently.
Fortunately, serious microwave superheating accidents are fairly unusual. However, they occur regularly and some of the worst victims require hospital treatment. I have heard of extreme cases in which people received serious eye injuries and third degree burns that required skin grafts and plastic surgery.
You can minimize the chance of this sort of problem by not overcooking water or any other liquid in the microwave oven, by waiting about 1 minute per cup for that liquid to cool before removing it from the microwave if there is any possibility that you have superheated it, and by being cautious when you first introduce utensils, powders, teabags, or otherwise disturb very hot liquid that has been cooked in a microwave oven. Keep the water away from your face and body until you’re sure it’s safe and don’t ever hover over the top of the container. Finally, it’s better to have the liquid boil violently while it’s inside the microwave oven than when it’s outside on your counter and can splatter all over you. Once you’re pretty certain that the water is no longer superheated, you can ensure that it’s safe by deliberately nucleating boiling before removing the cup from the microwave. Inserting a metal spoon or almost any food into the water should trigger boiling in superheated water. A pinch of sugar will do the trick, something I’ve often noticed when I heat tea in the microwave. However, don’t mess around with large quantities of superheated water. If you have more than 1 cup of potentially superheated water, don’t try to nucleate boiling until you’ve waited quite a while for it to cool down. I’ve been scalded by the stuff several times even when I was prepared for an explosion. It’s really dangerous.