AskDefine | Define microwave

Dictionary Definition



1 a short electromagnetic wave (longer than infrared but shorter than radio waves); used for radar and microwave ovens and for transmitting telephone, facsimile, video and data
2 kitchen appliance that cooks food by passing an electromagnetic wave through it; heat is produced by the absorption of microwave energy by the water molecules in the food [syn: microwave oven] v : cook or heat in a microwave oven; "You can microwave the left-overs" [syn: micro-cook, zap, nuke]

User Contributed Dictionary



  • , /ˈmaɪkrəˌweɪv/, /"maIkr@%weIv/
  • , /ˈmaɪkrəʊˌweɪv/, /"maIkr@U%weIv/


micro- + wave


  1. An electromagnetic wave with wavelength between that of infrared light and radio waves.
  2. A microwave oven.



Related terms


  1. To cook (something) in a microwave oven.


Extensive Definition

Microwaves are electromagnetic waves with wavelengths ranging from 1 mm to 1 m, or frequencies between 300 MHz and 300 GHz.
Apparatus and techniques may be described qualitatively as "microwave" when the wavelengths of signals are roughly the same as the dimensions of the equipment, so that lumped-element circuit theory is inaccurate. As a consequence, practical microwave technique tends to move away from the discrete resistors, capacitors, and inductors used with lower frequency radio waves. Instead, distributed circuit elements and transmission-line theory are more useful methods for design, analysis. Open-wire and coaxial transmission lines give way to waveguides, and lumped-element tuned circuits are replaced by cavity resonators or resonant lines. Effects of reflection, polarization, scattering, diffraction, and atmospheric absorption usually associated with visible light are of practical significance in the study of microwave propagation. The same equations of electromagnetic theory apply at all frequencies.
While the name may suggest a micrometer wavelength, it is better understood as indicating wavelengths very much smaller than those used in radio broadcasting. The boundaries between far infrared light, terahertz radiation, microwaves, and ultra-high-frequency radio waves are fairly arbitrary and are used variously between different fields of study. The term microwave generally refers to "alternating current signals with frequencies between 300 MHz (3×108 Hz) and 300 GHz (3×1011 Hz)." Both IEC standard 60050 and IEEE standard 100 define "microwave" frequencies starting at 1 GHz (30 cm wavelength).
Electromagnetic waves longer (lower frequency) than microwaves are called "radio waves". Electromagnetic radiation with shorter wavelengths may be called "millimeter waves", terahertz radiation or even T-rays. Definitions differ for millimeter wave band, which the IEEE defines as 110 GHz to 300 GHz.


The existence of electromagnetic waves, of which microwaves are part of the frequency spectrum, was predicted by James Clerk Maxwell in 1864 from his equations. In 1888, Heinrich Hertz was the first to demonstrate the existence of electromagnetic waves by building an apparatus that produced and detected microwaves in the UHF region. The design necessarily used horse-and-buggy materials, including a horse trough, a wrought iron point spark, Leyden jars, and a length of zinc gutter whose parabolic cross-section worked as a reflection antenna. In 1894 J. C. Bose publicly demonstrated radio control of a bell using millimetre wavelengths, and conducted research into the propagation of microwaves.

Frequency range

The microwave range includes ultra-high frequency (UHF) (0.3–3 GHz), super high frequency (SHF) (3–30 GHz), and extremely high frequency (EHF) (30–300 GHz) signals.
Above 300 GHz, the absorption of electromagnetic radiation by Earth's atmosphere is so great that it is effectively opaque, until the atmosphere becomes transparent again in the so-called infrared and optical window frequency ranges.

Microwave Sources

Vacuum tube based devices operate on the ballistic motion of electrons in a vacuum under the influence of controlling electric or magnetic fields, and include the magnetron, klystron, travelling wave tube (TWT), and gyrotron. These devices work in the density modulated mode, rather than the current modulated mode. This means that they work on the basis of clumps of electrons flying ballistically through them, rather than using a continuous stream.
A maser is a device similar to a laser, except that it works at microwave frequencies.
Solid-state sources include the field-effect transistor, at least at lower frequencies, tunnel diodes and Gunn diodes



  • Before the advent of fiber optic transmission, most long distance telephone calls were carried via microwave point-to-point links through sites like the AT&T Long Lines. Starting in the early 1950's, frequency division multiplex was used to send up to 5,400 telephone channels on each microwave radio channel, with as many as ten radio channels combined into one antenna for the hop to the next site, up to 70 km away.
  • Wireless LAN protocols, such as Bluetooth and the IEEE 802.11 specifications, also use microwaves in the 2.4 GHz ISM band, although 802.11a uses ISM band and U-NII frequencies in the 5 GHz range. Licensed long-range (up to about 25 km) Wireless Internet Access services can be found in many countries (but not the USA) in the 3.5–4.0 GHz range.
  • Metropolitan Area Networks: MAN protocols, such as WiMAX (Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access) based in the IEEE 802.16 specification. The IEEE 802.16 specification was designed to operate between 2 to 11 GHz. The commercial implementations are in the 2.3GHz, 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 5.8 GHz ranges.
  • Wide Area Mobile Broadband Wireless Access: MBWA protocols based on standards specifications such as IEEE 802.20 or ATIS/ANSI HC-SDMA (e.g. iBurst) are designed to operate between 1.6 and 2.3 GHz to give mobility and in-building penetration characteristics similar to mobile phones but with vastly greater spectral efficiency.
  • Cable TV and Internet access on coaxial cable as well as broadcast television use some of the lower microwave frequencies. Some mobile phone networks, like GSM, also use the lower microwave frequencies.
  • Microwave radio is used in broadcasting and telecommunication transmissions because, due to their short wavelength, highly directive antennas are smaller and therefore more practical than they would be at longer wavelengths (lower frequencies). There is also more bandwidth in the microwave spectrum than in the rest of the radio spectrum; the usable bandwidth below 300 MHz is less than 300 MHz while many GHz can be used above 300 MHz. Typically, microwaves are used in television news to transmit a signal from a remote location to a television station from a specially equipped van.

Remote Sensing

  • Radar uses microwave radiation to detect the range, speed, and other characteristics of remote objects. Development of radar was accelerated during World War II due to its great military utility. Now radar is widely used for applications such as air traffic control, navigation of ships, and speed limit enforcement.
  • A Gunn diode oscillator and waveguide are used as a motion detector for automatic door openers (although these are being replaced by ultrasonic devices).



  • A microwave oven passes (non-ionizing) microwave radiation (at a frequency near 2.45 GHz) through food, causing dielectric heating by absorption of energy in the water, fats and sugar contained in the food. Microwave ovens became common kitchen appliances in Western countries in the late 1970s, following development of inexpensive cavity magnetrons.
  • Microwave heating is used in industrial processes for drying and curing products.
  • Microwaves can be used to transmit power over long distances, and post-World War II research was done to examine possibilities. NASA worked in the 1970s and early 1980s to research the possibilities of using Solar power satellite (SPS) systems with large solar arrays that would beam power down to the Earth's surface via microwaves.
  • Less-than-lethal weaponry exists that uses millimeter waves to heat a thin layer of human skin to an intolerable temperature so as to make the targeted person move away. A two-second burst of the 95 GHz focused beam heats the skin to a temperature of 130 F (54 C) at a depth of 1/64th of an inch (0.4 mm). The United States Air Force and Marines are currently using this type of Active Denial System.

Microwave frequency bands

The microwave spectrum is usually defined as electromagnetic energy ranging from approximately 1 GHz to 1000 GHz in frequency, but older usage includes lower frequencies. Most common applications are within the 1 to 40 GHz range. Microwave frequency bands, as defined by the Radio Society of Great Britain (RSGB), are shown in the table below: The term P band is sometimes used for Ku Band. For other definitions see Letter Designations of Microwave Bands

Health effects

Microwaves contain insufficient energy to directly chemically change substances by ionization, and so are an example of nonionizing radiation. The word "radiation" refers to the fact that energy can radiate, and not to the different nature and effects of different kinds of energy. Specifically, the term in this context is not to be confused with radioactivity.
A great number of studies have been undertaken in the last two decades, most concluding they are safe. It is understood that microwave radiation at a level that causes heating of living tissue is hazardous (due to the possibility of overheating and burns) and most countries have standards limiting exposure, such as the Federal Communications Commission RF safety regulations.
Synthetic reviews of literature indicate the predominance of their safety of use.

History and research

Perhaps the first, documented, formal use of the term microwave occurred in 1931:
"When trials with wavelengths as low as 18 cm were made known, there was undisguised surprise that the problem of the micro-wave had been solved so soon." Telegraph & Telephone Journal XVII. 179/1
Perhaps the first use of the word microwave in an astronomical context occurred in 1946 in an article "Microwave Radiation from the Sun and Moon" by Robert Dicke and Robert Beringer.
For some of the history in the development of electromagnetic theory applicable to modern microwave applications see the following figures:
Specific significant areas of research and work developing microwaves and their applications:

See also

microwave in Arabic: مايكروويف
microwave in Bosnian: Mikrovalno zračenje
microwave in Bulgarian: Микровълни
microwave in Catalan: Microones
microwave in Czech: Mikrovlny
microwave in Danish: Mikrobølge
microwave in German: Mikrowellen
microwave in Modern Greek (1453-): Μικροκύματα
microwave in Spanish: Microondas
microwave in Esperanto: Mikroondoj
microwave in Persian: ریزموج
microwave in French: Micro-onde
microwave in Galician: Microondas
microwave in Croatian: Mikrovalovi
microwave in Indonesian: Gelombang mikro
microwave in Italian: Microonde
microwave in Hebrew: מיקרוגל
microwave in Latvian: Mikroviļņi
microwave in Lithuanian: Mikrobangos
microwave in Limburgan: Microgolf
microwave in Hungarian: Mikrohullám
microwave in Malay (macrolanguage): Mikrogelombang
microwave in Dutch: Microgolf
microwave in Japanese: マイクロ波
microwave in Norwegian: Mikrobølge
microwave in Norwegian Nynorsk: Mikrobølgjer
microwave in Polish: Mikrofale
microwave in Portuguese: Microondas
microwave in Russian: Микроволновое излучение
microwave in Albanian: Mikrovalët
microwave in Simple English: Microwave
microwave in Slovak: Mikrovlnné žiarenie
microwave in Serbian: Микроталаси
microwave in Serbo-Croatian: Mikrotalasi
microwave in Finnish: Mikroaallot
microwave in Swedish: Mikrovågor
microwave in Vietnamese: Vi ba
microwave in Turkish: Mikrodalga
microwave in Yiddish: מיקראכוואליע
microwave in Chinese: 微波
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