Some of you may know this experiment (Grape + Microwave oven = Plasma video link):

  • take a grape that you almost split in two parts, letting just a tiny piece of skin making a link between each half-part.
  • put that in a microwave oven, and few seconds later, a light ball which seems to be a plasma appears upon that grape

Looking through google to understand why this phenomenon happens, I have found either laconic or partial answers to that question.

In broad strokes, this what I understand :

  1. Microwaves seem to create an electric current in the grape because of ions.

    • Why do grapes contain ions ?
  2. Suddenly the tiny link between the two half-parts is broken which creates an electric arc

    • How is that link broken ?
  3. In parallel, the grape is warmed up and a gas is released from the grape

    • What is this gas made of? Water? Sugar?
  4. The combination of the electric arc in that gas creates a plasma

    • What is the necessary condition for a gas crossed by an electric arc to create plasma?

Is that correct?

Are there any relevant parameters (microwave frequency, grape size, grape orientation) that make it work?

Any idea of the order of magnitude for the intensity involved, the voltage of such an arc, the temperature reached (I've read 3000 degrees!)?

Has someone a complete explanation to provide (reference to physical principle would be appreciated!)?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ since this came up again I watched the video(s). Is it possible that alcohol is formed by the radiation of the microwave? The "plasma" looks to me a lot like burning alcohol fumes ( I use alcohol to start the fire in my woodstove at my vacation cottage) $\endgroup$ – anna v Apr 17 '14 at 11:01
  • $\begingroup$ Variation on the theme. If you put carbon fibers in a microwave, they immediately burn. If you put them in an evacuated tube, they glow like a light bulb filament. $\endgroup$ – mmesser314 Mar 5 '15 at 14:30
  • $\begingroup$ Related video $\endgroup$ – Aaron Stevens Mar 21 at 4:18

There does seem to be a lot of mythology around about the "grape in a microwave" experiment. I have never see any publications on the subject in a respectable journal, however from chatting to other scientists there seems to be a consensus about what happens.

It's all rather boring really. The grape is the right size (about a quarter wavelength) and shape to act as an antenna that focusses the power in the middle. The skin joining the grape halves heats up, vapourises and bursts into flame.

If anyone feels in an experimental mood some obvious tests of this would be to change the grape size and shape, and see if that affects the flame. Less easy to do at home would be to try the experiment with a nitrogen atmosphere as that should prevent combustion.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you mean this is not a plasma ? this is not about an electric arc crossing a gas ? $\endgroup$ – JBE Sep 20 '12 at 14:36
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    $\begingroup$ Plasma means a large population of free electrons and ions, as opposed to a flame which just has a large population of excited-state electrons. They can certainly look similar though, as both give off light. I don't believe a microwave oven has enough power to create a plasma at atmospheric pressure, so what you see is likely vaporized particles heated to incandescence (a flame). $\endgroup$ – user2963 Sep 20 '12 at 15:10
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    $\begingroup$ @JBE the word "plasma" tends to be used rather loosely. As I understand it the grape experiment produces a flame, though I'm sure there would be ions within it so maybe you'd describe it as a plasma. Doing the experiment in nitrogen would show which it is. I did Google for this but I can find no report of the experiment having been done in nitrogen or any other inert gas. I doubt the flame is an electric arc as I can't see how you'd generate the potential difference required. $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Sep 20 '12 at 15:34
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    $\begingroup$ ""Plasma means a large population of free electrons and ions, as opposed to a flame which just has a large population of excited-state electrons."" What are "exited-state-electrons? Most flames contain a lot of ions! $\endgroup$ – Georg Sep 20 '12 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Georg - I don't know where that quote came from, but I'd guess that "large population of excited-state electrons" means a large population of atoms whose electrons have been raised to a higher energy state but remain bound to the atom. Actually in a flame I think it's only a small minority of atoms that are excited enough to emit light, so I wouldn't use the description "large population". $\endgroup$ – John Rennie Sep 20 '12 at 16:13

Plasma is a state of matter which is composed entirely of charged particles or ions. By this definition, a flame is a plasma in itself because it consists of charged particles. This can be demonstrated by placing a flame in a uniform electric field. The flame bends to a side in presence of a field. It may also be due to the fact that an electric field ionizes some constituents in the flame, causing it to be affected by the electric field itself. In either case, it is not wrong to call a flame some sort of a "cold plasma". If a grape bursts into flame when put in the microwave, I do not think that people are wrong to call it plasma by any standards. As far as your question is concerned, you already have your answer.


As of early 2019 a research paper has been published to explain this phenomenon as due to resonance of the microwaves:

H.K. Khattak, P. Bianucci, and A.D. Slepkov, "Linking plasma formation in grapes to microwave resonances of aqueous dimers," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, vol. 116, no. 10, pp. 4000-4005, Mar 5, 2019. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1818350116

Here I quote an excerpt of its abstract:

By expanding this phenomenon to whole spherical dimers of various grape-sized fruit and hydrogel water beads, we demonstrate that the formation of plasma is due to electromagnetic hotspots arising from the cooperative interaction of Mie resonances in the individual spheres. The large dielectric constant of water at the relevant gigahertz frequencies can be used to form systems that mimic surface plasmon resonances that are typically reserved for nanoscale metallic objects. The absorptive properties of water furthermore act to homogenize higher-mode profiles and to preferentially select evanescent field concentrations such as the axial hotspot.

And an excerpt of its summary:

[W]e have shown that the popular-science phenomenon of forming plasma with grapes in a household microwave oven is explained by MDR behavior. Grapes act as spheres of water, which, due to their large index of refraction and small absorptivity, form leaky resonators at 2.4 GHz. Mie resonances in isolated spheres coherently add when brought together such that the aqueous dimer displays an intense hotspot at the point of contact that is sufficient to field-ionize available sodium and potassium ions, igniting a plasma.


Youtube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCNNqgKqnaQ

There are quite a few questions here:

1a) Because any living organism contains ions. (Scientist can not answer the question "why" they answer the question "how").

1b) From the video, it seems to be working for any size of grape (you can try at home). The microwave frequency used in oven is the water molecule rotation frequency.

2a) Water molecules absorb the microwaves and get heated. "A microwave oven works by passing non-ionizing microwave radiation, usually at a frequency of 2.45 gigahertz (GHz) —a wavelength of 122 millimeters (4.80 in)— through the food. Microwave radiation is between common radio and infrared frequencies. Water, fat, and other substances in the food absorb energy from the microwaves in a process called dielectric heating. Many molecules (such as those of water) are electric dipoles, meaning that they have a partial positive charge at one end and a partial negative charge at the other, and therefore rotate as they try to align themselves with the alternating electric field of the microwaves. Rotating molecules hit other molecules and put them into motion, thus dispersing energy. This energy, when dispersed as molecular vibration in solids and liquids (i.e., as both potential energy and kinetic energy of atoms), is heat." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_oven

That must weaken the link.

The arc can be up to a few thousands volt.

3a) The gas is probably mainly water plus some biological molecules.

3b) An electric arc through a gas is a plasma. Plasma temperature varies from a thousand degrees to several millions. Joule effect and microwave heating are responsible for this temperature.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ ""The microwave frequency used in oven is the water molecule rotation frequency. "" There is no rotation of molecules in condensed liquids! $\endgroup$ – Georg Sep 20 '12 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Georg: You would be inspired to check your physics. Rotaional spectroscopy is a field in itself. lsbu.ac.uk/water/vibrat.html $\endgroup$ – Shaktyai Sep 20 '12 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ Nonetheless, it is a myth that microwave ovens operate at any resonant frequency of water. $\endgroup$ – user27118 Mar 6 '15 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ another myth? . A link to a doc by Popa, Adrian (23 December 1997). "Re: Why do grapes spark in the microwave?". MadSci Network. Retrieved 23 February 2006. $\endgroup$ – Helder Velez Mar 14 '15 at 2:35

Usually, the microwaves are too weak to heat anything to a plasma state. However, if you bypass the manufacturer’s instructions and turn on the microwave with nothing in it to absorb energy, the microwave energy density will be much higher than normal.

Now, the reason you cut the grape in half is:

"Now it turns out that grapes are just the right size to further focus the electric fields in the oven. Two grapes placed close but not quite touching will produce a large field between them, sometimes enough to make a plasma."

source: https://van.physics.illinois.edu/qa/listing.php?id=818

  • $\begingroup$ yes this is how I understand it. $\endgroup$ – Gareth Meredith Mar 21 at 6:18

protected by Qmechanic Apr 17 '14 at 6:42

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