The prefix micro- in microwave is not meant to suggest a wavelength in the micrometer range. It indicates that microwaves are “small”, compared to waves used in typical radio broadcasting. The boundaries between far infrared, terahertz radiation, microwaves, and ultra-high-frequency radio waves are fairly subjective and are used variously between different fields of study.
High-power microwave sources use specialized vacuum tubes to generate microwaves. These devices operate on different principles from low-frequency vacuum tubes, using the ballistic motion of electrons in a vacuum under the influence of controlling electric or magnetic fields, and include the magnetron (used in microwave ovens), klystron, traveling-wave tube (TWT), and gyrotron.
Before the advent of fiber-optic transmission, most long-distance telephone calls were carried via networks of microwave radio relay links run by carriers. Starting in the early 1950s, 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.
Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) including the Chinese Beidou, the American Global Positioning System (GPS) and the Russian GLONASS broadcast navigational signals in various bands between about 1.2 GHz and 1.6 GHz.
Radar uses microwave radiation to detect the range, speed, and other characteristics of remote objects. Now radar is widely used for applications such as air traffic control, weather forecasting, navigation of ships, and speed limit enforcement.
Most radio astronomy uses microwaves. Usually the naturally-occurring microwave radiation is observed, but active radar experiments have also been done with objects in the solar system, such as determining the distance to the Moon or mapping the invisible surface of Venus through cloud cover.
Heating and power application
A microwave oven passes (non-ionizing) microwave radiation at a frequency near 2.45 GHz (12 cm) through food, causing dielectric heating primarily by absorption of the energy in water. Microwave ovens became common kitchen appliances in Western countries in the late 1970s, following the development of less expensive cavity magnetrons. Water in the liquid state possesses many molecular interactions that broaden the absorption peak. In the vapor phase, isolated water molecules absorb at around 22 GHz, almost ten times the frequency of the microwave oven.
Microwave heating is used in industrial processes for drying and curing products.
Microwave frequency bands
The microwave spectrum is usually defined as electromagnetic energy ranging from approximately 1 GHz to 100 GHz in frequency, but older use includes lower frequencies. Most common applications are within the 1 to 40 GHz range.
Effect on health
Microwaves do not contain sufficient energy to chemically change substances by ionization, and so is an example of non-ionizing radiation. The word “radiation” refers to energy radiating from a source and not to radioactivity. It has not been shown conclusively that microwaves (or other non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation) have significant adverse biological effects at low levels. Some, but not all, studies suggest that long-term exposure may have a carcinogenic effect. This is separate from the risks associated with very high-intensity exposure, which can cause heating and burns like any heat source, and not a unique property of microwaves specifically.