I saw the story on Primetime tonight (Superheated Water Produced in Microwave Ovens on ABC Primetime 3/15/2001), and at weird timing. Just yesterday, a co-worker and I were standing around the kitchen area talking, while she warmed up some coffee. All of a sudden, there was a loud POP, which startled both of us. Not knowing exactly what had happened, we stopped the microwave and opened the door, only to find the contents of the mug (coffee) everywhere on the inside of the cooking chamber, less a few drops at the bottom of the cup.
The story provided SOME insight into what exactly had happened, however, it was reported that the surface of the super-heated liquid had to be broken by something for an explosion to be triggered. In the explosion with the coffee, there were no other objects in the microwave other than the mug and the coffee it held. What then, caused the explosion if nothing was present to break the surface? – MM, Denver, CO
Superheated water doesn’t always wait until triggered before undergoing sudden boiling. All that’s needed to start an explosion is for something to introduce an initial “seed” bubble into the liquid. Sometimes the container already has everything necessary to form a seed bubble and it’s just a matter of getting the water hot enough to start that process. Many seed bubbles begin as trapped air in tiny crevices. As the water gets hotter, the size of any trapped air pocket grows and eventually it may be able to break free as a real seed bubble. When water is sufficiently superheated, just a single seed bubble is enough to start an explosion and empty the container completely. In your case, the coffee flash boiled spontaneously after something inside it nucleated the first bubble.
This sort of accident happens fairly often and we rarely think much about it as we sponge up the spilled liquid inside the microwave oven. But had your friend been unlucky enough to stop heating the coffee a second or two before that POP, she might have been injured while taking the coffee out of the oven. The moral of this story is to avoid overcooking any liquid in the microwave oven. If you must drink your coffee boiling hot, pay attention to it as it heats up so that it doesn’t cook too long and then let it sit for a minute after the oven turns off. If you don’t like your coffee boiling hot, then don’t heat it to boiling at all.