When I heat a cup of water in my microwave oven to 200 degrees, then put a spoonful of instant coffee in the hot water, it foams up. Hot water from a coffee maker does not do this. Why does water heated in a microwave oven do this? — WAH, Library, Pennsylvania
The microwave oven is superheating the water to a temperature slightly above its boiling temperature. It can do this because it doesn’t help water boil the way a normal coffee maker does. For water to boil, two things must occur. First, the water must reach or exceed its boiling temperature—the temperature at which a bubble of pure steam inside the water becomes sturdy enough to avoid being crushed by atmospheric pressure. Second, bubbles of pure steam must begin to nucleate inside the water. It’s the latter requirement that’s not being met in the water you’re heating with the microwave. Steam bubbles rarely form of their own accord unless the water is far above its boiling temperature. That’s because a pure nucleation event requires several water molecules to break free of their neighbors simultaneously to form a tiny steam bubble and that’s very unlikely at water’s boiling temperature. Instead, most steam bubbles form either at hot spots, or at impurities or imperfections—scratches in a metal pot, the edge of a sugar crystal, a piece of floating debris. When you heat clean water in a glass container using a microwave oven, there are no hot spots and almost no impurities or imperfections that would assist boiling. As a result, the water has trouble boiling. But as soon as you add a powder to the superheated water, you trigger the formation of steam bubbles and the liquid boils madly.