I want to trick my friends into thinking that my cell phone can pop popcorn. Here is my plan: take the magnetron out of my microwave and mount it under a table. Then, put some popcorn kernels on the table right above the magnetron. Finally, place my cell phone near the popcorn and point it at the kernels. Then secretly turn on the magnetron until a couple kernels pop. Will this work and is it safe? — MS, Charlottesville, Virginia
It probably won’t work and it’s definitely not safe. Instead of tricking your friends, you risk cooking them. Here is why I think you’d better leave your plan as a thought experiment only.
Those YouTube videos were complete fakes; they didn’t pop any popcorn while the camera was rolling. To make it appear that the cell phones were popping the corn, the people who produced the videos dropped already prepared popcorn into the frame and then photoshopped away the unpopped kernels. When you watch the video, it looks like the kernels are popping, but they’re really just disappearing via video editing as precooked popcorn is sprinkle onto the set from above.
The reason they had to use video trickery is pretty clear: to pop popcorn with microwaves, those microwaves have to be extremely intense. Each kernel contains only a tiny amount of water and it’s the water that heats up when the kernel is exposed to microwaves. If the microwaves aren’t intense enough, the heat they deposit in the kernel’s water will flow out to the rest of the kernel and into the environment too quickly for the kernel’s water to superheat and then flash to steam.
Even when you put popcorn kernels in a closed microwave oven, it takes a minute or two for the kernels to accumulate enough thermal energy to pop. In that closed microwave oven, the microwaves bounce around inside the metal cooking chamber and their intensity increases dramatically. It’s like sending the beam from a laser pointer into a totally mirrored room—the light energy in that room will build up until it is extremely bright in there. In the closed cooking chamber of the oven, the microwave energy also builds up until the microwave intensity is enough to pop the corn. How intense? Well, a typical microwave oven produces 700 watts of microwave power. Since the cooking chamber is nearly empty when you’re popping popcorn, the cooking chamber accumulates a circulating power of very roughly 50,000 watts.
Although that power is spread out over the cross section of the oven, the microwaves are still seriously intense — thousands of watts per square inch. To put that in perspective, a cell phone transmits a maximum of 2 watts and that power is spread out over at least 5 square inches so the intensity is less than 1 watt per square inch. When I saw those videos in Summer 2008, I realized that there was no way cell phones were ever going to pop popcorn. They certainly wouldn’t do it while they are ringing, because that’s when they are primarily receiving microwaves, not when they’re transmitting them. It’s when you’re talking that your cell phone is regularly producing microwaves. It was all obviously just fun and games.
So what about your disassembled microwave oven? Since there is no metal box to trap the microwaves and accumulate energy, they’ll only have one shot at popping the corn kernels. The microwaves will emerge from the magnetron’s waveguide at high intensity, but they’ll spread out quickly once there is nothing to guide them. You could probably pop kernel right at the mouth of the magnetron but not a few inches away. Unless you use microwave optics to focus those microwaves, they’ll have spread too much by the time they get through the table and reach the kernels of popcorn and the kernels will probably never pop.
If that were the whole story, the worst that would happen with your experiment would be that it wouldn’t cook popcorn. But there is a real hazard here. Sending about 700 watts of microwaves into the room isn’t exactly safe. It’s something like having a red hot coal emitting 700 watts of infrared light, except that you won’t see anything with your eyes and this microwave “light” is coherent (i.e., laser-like) so it can focus really tightly. You’d hate to have some metal structure in the room or even inside the walls of the room focus the microwaves onto you. You absorb microwave much better than the corn kernels and you’ll “pop” long before they do. Actually, your eyes are particularly sensitive to microwave heating and you might not notice the damage until too late. Without instruments to observe the pattern of microwaves in the room when the magnetron is on, I wouldn’t want to be in the room.