Enlarge / Not just for grapes: plasma formed between a pair of hydrogel beads irradiated in a household microwave oven. (credit: Hamza K. Khattak)
DIY science enthusiasts know that, if you put a halved grape into a microwave with just a bit of skin connecting the halves, it'll produce sparks and a fiery plume of ionized gas known as a plasma. There are thousands of YouTube videos documenting the effect. But the standard explanation offered for why this occurs isn't quite right, according to a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And its authors only needed to destroy a dozen microwaves to prove it.
"Many microwaves were in fact harmed during the experiments," admitted co-author Hamza Khattak of Trent University in Canada. "At one point, we had a microwave graveyard in the lab before disposing of the many early iterations in electronic waste."
Co-author Aaron Slepkov first became interested in the phenomenon when, as an undergraduate in 1995, he noticed there was no formal (i.e., scientifically rigorous and peer-reviewed) explanation for how the plasma was being generated. Once he'd finished his PhD and established his own research group at Trent University, he started doing his own experiments (microwaving grapes for science) with one of his undergraduate students. They used thermal imaging and computer simulations of both grapes and hydrogel beads in their experiments.
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