How they're made

Microwaves are basically extremely high frequency radio waves, and are made by various types of transmitter.

In a mobile phone, they're made by a transmitter chip and an antenna, in a microwave oven they're made by a "magnetron".

Their wavelength is usually a couple of centimetres. Stars also give off microwaves.

Satellite TV uses microwavesMobile phone mast


Air Traffic Control Radar

Microwaves cause water and fat molecules to vibrate, which makes the substances hot.

So we can use microwaves to cook many types of food.

Mobile phones use microwaves, as they can be generated by a small antenna, which means that the phone doesn't need to be very big. Wifi also uses microwaves.

The drawback is that, being small, mobiles phones can't put out much power, and they also need a line of sight to the transmitter.

Fixed speed cameras use microwaves. The mobile ones use infra-red

This means that mobile phone companies need to have many transmitter towers if they're going to attract customers.

Microwaves are also used by fixed traffic speed cameras, and for radar, which is used by aircraft, ships and weather forcasters.

The most common type of radar works by sending out bursts of microwaves, detecting the "echoes" coming back from the objects they hit, and using the time it takes for the echoes to come back to work out how far away the object is.


Prolonged exposure to significant levels of microwaves is known to cause "cataracts" in your eyes, which is a clouding of the lens preventing you from seeing clearly (if at all!) So don't make a habit of pressing your face against the microwave oven door to see if your food's ready!

People who work on aircraft carrier decks wear special suits which reflect microwaves, to avoid being "cooked" by the powerful radar units in modern military planes. But that's to guard against powerful radar - not mobile phones or wifi.

Some research in the past has indicated that the small doses of microwaves from mobile phones might affect parts of your brain - after all, you're holding the transmitter right by your head. Other research is inconclusive, although there is a feeling that you're more vulnerable if you're young and your brain is still growing.

So the advice was to keep calls short. That's right - we're supposed to advise teenagers not to spend too long on the phone. What could possibly go wrong with a plan like that?

Wireless computer networks use microwaves

So should I worry about using my mobile phone? Not really.

See this Guardian article (February 2016) - recent research shows no evidence that the low levels of microwaves from phones and wifi causes any health issues.