|MadSci Network: Physics|
Your question is full of interesting physics and my answers are a bit complicated. Iíll try to make them understandable. During the early days of microwave ovens I had a research project to study the microwave properties of many different types of foods in microwave ovens; however, I never tried cooking grapes!
First let me define 3 terms:
Microwave ovens generate between 500 watts and one thousand watts of microwave power at a frequency of 2400 megahertz (MHz or 2400 million cycles per second), corresponding to a wavelength of 12.5 cm (4.9 inches)in air. However, the oven wavelength in the dielectric distilled water is reduced to 1.4 cm (0.55 inches). As you shall see this is an important part of the answer to your question. Also, for an arc to occur in the air inside a microwave oven, a microwave field of at least 30,000 volts per centimeter must be generated! With the grapes separated by one millimeter (0.04 inches) we need to generate a 3000 volt potential between the grapes to generate arcing! This is a considerable amount of voltage.
Not being able to have a cup of water in the oven causes me to caution anyone about trying to repeat this experiment because they might damage their microwave oven.
For my experiments I purchased large 2.54 cm (1 inch) diameter red grapes. To protect the oven's microwave tube, I limited the oven timer to ten seconds for each test so that the grapes could not dry out during the experiment. I also used fresh grapes for each experiment so that I knew they were water filled and not dried out.
I found that single grapes would eject steam out of the stem hole forming little rocket engines which often propelled the grapes about the oven. If the stem was left in the grape, so that the steam could not escape, the grape skin would quickly rupture in a small explosion as it was heated. This reminded me that most microwave oven instruction books tell you not to cook eggs in the shell in an oven for the steam build up inside the hard shell will eventually cause the egg to explode causing a big mess in the oven.
When I put two grapes close together with the stem holes close to each other the arching and sparking you described occurs. The arc made a 120 Hertz buzz following the pulsing power of the microwave magnetron tube.
When I placed the stem holes tightly together the arcing would not occur.
When I heated single grapes and touching grape pairs together in the oven for 10 seconds, the touching pairs were at a significantly higher temperature after heating than the single grapes were! This suggests some form of enhancement of the microwave field in the grape pairs (perhaps a dipole antenna).
I also repeated these experiments with large cranberries. They have less water in them than grapes and are smaller in diameter. I was able to produce smaller arcs between cranberry pairs; however, I had to cut a small hole in the berry ends to let the steam escape to form an arc.
Non conducting dielectric materials are used for microwave cooking ware because they are relatively transparent to microwave energy. Also dielectric heating of food, particularly the water molecules in food, is the key principle used in microwave cooking.
Dielectric spheres one or more wavelengths in diameter form a special class of microwave antenna structure. When a dielectric sphere is immersed in a microwave field the spheres concentrate the electric field lines along an axis as shown in Figure A. If the sphere is slightly elongated, the field will usually align with the longest axis. This is exactly what water filled grapes (which are one or two wavelengths in diameter) will do in a microwave oven. The concentrated microwave field inside the grapes quickly heats the grapes to a high temperature after only 10 seconds of heating.
|GRAPES IMMERSED IN AN ELECTROMAGNETIC FIELD. EQUAL POTENTIAL LINES ARE COMPRESSED INSIDE THE GRAPES AND IN THE GAP BETWEEN THE GRAPES INCREASING THE VOLTAGE GRADIENT IN THE STEAM FILLED REGION CAUSING AIR BREAKDOWN (ARCING)|
Next I put two grapes with their stem holes tightly together and the pair of grapes form a larger more efficient dipole like antenna as the microwave energy field flows between the two coupled grapes. I believe this is why the coupled grapes are much hotter after 10 seconds of heating than single grapes are.
Finally, I slightly separated the stem holes of the grape pairs by about one millimeter. As the grapes are heated each grape emits a jet of steam toward the other grape and the concentrated microwave fields from the spheres reach more than 3000 volts exciting the steam into a plasma state as shown in Figure B. The plasma forms a short circuited conductor between the dipoles and we get the arching in the region of steam between the arrows shown in Figure B. When the grapes have expelled their steam pressure I found that the plasma extinguishes and the arc goes out.
This explanation is based on spheres filled with pure water and we know that the grape juice is acidic not just pure water. A more complex reaction is occurring within the grapes. However, the external resultant arcing would probably be about the same for both cases.
I said in the beginning that this is a complicated experiment with a complicated answer. It would take some expensive microwave equipment and time to study the arcing grapes in more detail in the laboratory. I hope this helps answer some of your questions. If you have more questions about the experiments please send me an e-mail note.
Best regards, your Mad Scientist
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