Are microwave makers responsible to warn people about superheating explosions?

I read the letter on your website about being burned from water exploding from heating in the microwave. This recently happened to me with a cup of coffee. I thought it was because of the material of the coffee cup. I too felt ridiculous trying to explain my injuries to anyone because it seemed impossible. My question to you is: “are microwave makers responsible for advisement of this kind of hazard”? — JB

When you use a microwave oven to heat water in a glass or glazed container, the water will have difficulty boiling properly. That’s because boiling is an accelerated version of evaporation in which water vapor evaporates not only from the water’s upper surface, but also through the surface of any water vapor bubbles the water happens to contain. I use the phrase “happens to contain” because that is where all the trouble lies.

Below water’s boiling temperature, bubbles of water vapor are unstable—they are quickly crushed by atmospheric pressure and vanish into the liquid. At or above water’s boiling temperature, those water vapor bubbles are finally dense enough to withstand atmospheric pressure and they grow via evaporation, rise to the surface, and pop. At that point, I’d probably call the water vapor by its other name: steam. But where do those steam or water vapor bubbles come from in the first place?

Forming water vapor bubbles in the midst of liquid water, a process called nucleation, is surprisingly difficult and it typically happens at hot spots or non-wetted defects (places where the water doesn’t completely coat the surface and there is trapped air). When you boil water in a metal pot on the stove, there are hot spots and defects galore and nucleating the bubbles is not a problem. When you boil water in a glass or glazed container using a microwave oven, however, there are no significant hot spots and few non-wetted defects. The water boils fitfully or not at all. The “not at all” possibility can lead to disaster.

Water that’s being heated in a metal pot on the stove boils so vigorously that the stove is unable to heat it more than tiny bit above its boiling temperature. All the heat that’s flowing into the water is consumed by the process of transforming liquid water into gaseous water, so the water temperature doesn’t rise. Water that’s being heated in a glass container in a microwave oven boils so fitfully that you can heat it above its boiling temperature. It’s simply not able to use up all the thermal energy it receives via the microwaves and its temperature keeps rising. The water becomes superheated.

Most of the time, there are enough defects around to keep the water boiling a bit and it superheats only a small amount. When you remove the container of water from the microwave oven and toss in some coffee powder or a teabag, thus dragging air bubbles below the surface, the superheated water boils into those air bubbles. A stream of bubbles suddenly appears on the surface of the water. Most people would assume that those bubbles had something to do with the powder or teabag, not with the water itself. Make no mistake, however, the water was responsible and those bubbles are mostly steam, not air.

Occasionally, though, the water fails to boil at all or stops boiling after it manages to wet the last of the defects on the glass or glazed surface. I’ve made this happen deliberately many times and it’s simply not that hard to do. It can easily happen by accident. With no bubbles to assist evaporation, the water’s only way to get rid of heat is via evaporation from its top surface. If the microwave oven continues to add thermal energy to the water while it is having such difficulty getting rid of that energy, the water’s temperature will skyrocket and it will superheat severely.

Highly superheated water is explosive. If something causes nucleation in that water, a significant fraction of the water will flash to steam in the blink of an eye and blast the remaining liquid water everywhere. That boiling-hot water and steam are a major burn hazard and the blast can break the container or blow it across the room. I’ve heard from a good number of people who have been seriously hurt by exploding superheated water produced accidentally in microwave ovens. It’s a hazard people should take seriously.

After that long introduction, it’s time to answer your question. Yes, I believe that the microwave makers are responsible for advising people of this hazard. Moreover, they know that they are responsible for doing it. If you look at any modern microwave oven user manual, you will find a discussion of superheating or overheating. Look at your manual, I’ll bet it’s in there.

But that discussion will almost certainly be buried in the middle of an long list of warnings. For example, in one manual, the discussion of overheated water appears as item 17 of 22, after such entries as “4. Install or locate this appliance only in accordance with the provided installation instructions” and “12. Do not immerse cord or plug in water”. To be fair to the manufacturer, warning 17 is longest of the bunch and it suggests mostly reasonable precautions (although I’m not so happy with recommendation 17a: “Do not overheat the liquid.”). No Duh.

I think the issue is this: most product warnings are provided not out of any sincere concern for the consumer, but out of fear of litigation. A manufacturer’s goal when providing those warnings is therefore to be absolutely comprehensive so that they can point to a line in a user manual in court and claim to have fulfilled their responsibility. The number and order of the warnings makes no difference; they just have to be in there somewhere.

So all those warnings you ignore in product literature aren’t really about consumer safety, they’re about product liability. You ignore them because everything now comes with a thousand of them, ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous. For my research, I ordered 99.999% pure sodium chloride (i.e., ultrapure table salt). It came with a 6-page Material Safety Data Sheet that identifies it as an “Xi Irritant”, noting that it is “Irritating to eyes, respiratory system and skin” and recommending first aid measures that include:

“After inhalation: supply fresh air. If required, provide artificial respiration. Keep patient warm. Seek immediate medical advice.
After skin contact: Immediately wash with water and soap and rinse thoroughly. Seek immediate medical advice.
After eye contact: rinse opened eye for several minutes under running water. Then consult a doctor.”

So much for swimming in the ocean…

By design and by accident, our society has lost the ability to distinguish real risk from imaginary risk. We treat all risks as equal and spend way too much time worrying about the wrong ones. If you want to be safer around your cell phone, for example, you should worry more about driving with it in your hand than about the microwave radiation it emits. The current evidence is that your risk of injury or death due to a cell-phone related accident far outweighs your risk from cell-phone microwave exposure. Even if further research proves that cell phone microwave exposure is injurious, we should be acting according to our best current assessments of risk, not according to fears and beliefs.

That said, I’d like to see product literature rank their warnings according to risk and put the real risks in a separate place where they can’t be overlooked or ignored. Put the real consumer safety stuff where the consumers will see it and put the product liability stuff somewhere else where the lawyers can find it. For a microwave oven, there are probably about half a dozen real risks that people should know about. Several of them are relatively obvious (e.g., don’t heat sealed containers) and some are not obvious (e.g., liquids heated in the microwave can become superheated and explode).

Maybe we’ll get a handle on risk someday. In the meantime, inform your friends and children that they should be careful about heating liquids in the microwave, particularly in glass or glazed containers. Just knowing that superheating is possible would probably halve the number of burns and other injuries that result from superheating accidents.

Hydrogen and Energy – Fraud, PR, and Politics

There is a video circulating on the internet which purports to show an “inventor” who has a machine that burns water. Water is broken down into hydrogen and oxygen which is then burned to produce….more water! I maintain that the net energy produced would be about zero since energy must be expended to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen. Your comments please. — ST, Arizona

You have it exactly right. Water itself is burned hydrogen, and the energy required to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen is equal to the energy released when the hydrogen subsequently burns back into water. Energy in and energy out. Just as in bicycling, if you want to roll downhill, you have to pedal uphill first.

Anyone who claims to be able to extract useful energy through a process that starts with water and ends with water is a charlatan. Either they aren’t producing any useful energy or it’s coming from some other source. In these sorts of frauds, there is usually some electrical component that is supposedly needed to keep a minor part of the apparatus functioning. That component isn’t insignificant at all; it’s what actually keeps the entire apparatus functioning!

Hydrogen has such a mythical aura to it, but in the context of energy, it’s just another fuel. Actually, it’s more of any energy storage medium than a basic fuel. That’s because hydrogen doesn’t occur naturally on earth and can only be produced by consuming another form of energy. There is so much talk about “the hydrogen economy” and the notion that hydrogen will rescue us from our dependence on petroleum. Sadly, politicians who promote hydrogen as the energy panacea neither understand science nor respect those who do. Since it takes just as much energy to produce hydrogen from water as is released when that hydrogen burns back into water, hydrogen alone won’t save us.

As we grow progressively more desperate for useable energy, the amount of fraud and misinformation will only increase. There are only a few true sources for useable energy: solar energy (which includes wind power, hydropower, and biomass), fossil fuels (which include petroleum and coal), geothermal energy, and nuclear fuels. Hydrogen is not among them; it can be produced only at the expense of one of the others. Even ethanol, which is touted as an environmentally sound replacement for petroleum, has its problems; producing a gallon of ethanol can all too easily consume a gallon of petroleum.

Where energy is concerned, watch out for fraud, hype, PR, and politics. If we survive the coming energy and climate crises, it will be because we’ve learned to conserve energy and to obtain it primarily from solar and perhaps nuclear sources. It will also be because we’ve learned to set politics and self-interest aside long enough to make accurate analyses and sound decisions.