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New Wave Microwave
June 17, 1999

Why can’t convenience foods be more user-friendly? Scientists say they will be—hen your microwave oven learns how to cook! Food scientists at Rutgers University are creating a smart microwave oven that recognizes the food to be prepared and offers advice on recipes and nutrition. The next generation of microwave ovens will feature bar-code scanners, voice recognition, and a link to the Internet.

Kit Keith Yam, a food science professor at Rutgers, is frustrated with the limitations of current microwave ovens. "In the market, you have different ovens, different power levels, and… you are not able to get the same result," Yam explains.

"The biggest gap in satisfaction to the consumer has been the inconsistency in the heating of the food," agrees Jesse Yachouh, manager of technical services at Celentano Brothers, Inc., a food manufacturing company working with the Rutgers researchers. "Sometimes you burn part of the food, sometimes part of the food is still cold."

But Yam would like the technology to do more than just cook smarter. He envisions an appliance that helps consumers monitor their intake of food, shop from home, and view video clips with additional cooking or nutritional information. "It provides the consumer value in terms of quality, better food, safer food," said Yam. "It’s also more convenient and it gives consumers useful information in terms of how to monitor their health."

What’s Going On in There?

Conventional ovens cook food using heat conduction; the air around the food is hot, and this heat eventually propagates into the center of the food. Microwave ovens cause the food to self-heat, by exciting water molecules within the food. They do this by "zapping" the food with microwaves, which are a kind of radio wave. The excited water molecules move around, creating friction that, in turn, creates heat.

The microwaves penetrate unevenly in dense pieces of food. Sometimes the waves interact with each other, creating regions with no energy and other regions with twice as much energy as there should be. Consequently, the directions for cooking many kinds of food in the microwave oven can be rather complicated to compensate for these shortcomings. It may be necessary to program the microwave to emit different power levels for different periods of time, all the while turning the food either on a carousel or manually.

Safety First

Many people become frustrated with such complex instructions, and end up eating food that is poorly prepared or worse, inadequately cooked. Dr. Yam would like to take the hassle out of microwave cooking, but also wants to make it safer; undercooked food can be a source of illness-causing microbes.

The 21st century microwave won’t require programming or buttons to press; cooking instructions will be embedded in bar codes on food product packaging. The consumer need only place the food inside the unit and scan the package label; the microwave will do the rest.

Fortified with Information

For this strategy to be effective, food companies must agree to add food preparation and nutritional information to the bar codes on their food packaging, as well as to make the information available online. But Yam believes that food companies will see this as an opportunity. "The manufacturer is just putting a bar code on a package," said Yam. "Changing the printing would not cause too much trouble. It would not cause any extra cost."

But where will all this information come from?

The microprocessor: This small computer functions as the "brains" of the high-tech cooker. Developed in collaboration with electronics manufacturer Samsung the computer’s software controls the oven’s electronics, such as turning the unit on for the correct length of time and at the proper power setting. It will also be programmed to interpret and analyze food science information, using the expert knowledge base of many food science professionals. Getting all the protein you need? Consuming too many carbos? The smart microwave can inform you about ingredients and make recommendations to improve your health.

Bar codes and scanners are convenient and compact tools for transferring product information into the microwave’s brain. Rutgers researchers are working with bar-code scanner maker Symbol Technologies to develop two- and three-dimensional bar codes, which will be capable of storing considerably more information than the current one-dimensional codes allow. Voice recognition will allow consumers to customize the operation of their appliance. After all, the degree to which food is cooked varies with the preference of the individual; for example, broiling a steak until it is medium rare rather than well done. Simply tell the microwave your name and, like a four-star waiter, the next time that product is cooked, the microwave will modify the cooking instructions to your liking. Have a food allergy? Gone vegan? Are you diabetic? The microwave will check the ingredients against your personal profile and send a warning if you shouldn’t be eating this food.

Internet access will keep your microwave informed on the latest coming instructions and nutritional information from sites like the Food Science Department at Rutgers. It will also be able to warn consumers quickly about important news such as product recalls. After checking your email, why not browse recipes or new cooking techniques online? Running low on salisbury steak frozen lunches? Let the microwave automatically send your grocery order to the supermarket each week. Monitoring your salt intake? The microwave can keep track and email a report to your physician.

Cyber Space Food

image: NASA

Yam and his colleagues have submitted a proposal to NASA to develop a food center for space missions. They believe that their microwave oven will not only not only provide better quality food for the astronauts, but the "smart" cooking programs should also save energy.

Smart microwaves may be available terrestrially within a year or two. The idea has already attracted competition from the NCR Corporation , which demonstrated a prototype home banking microwave in the United Kingdom last fall. In addition to bar code scanners and voice recognition, NCR’s microwave features online banking, email, and a television screen mounted on the microwave’s door. What’s next? A blender that doubles as a telephone?

Elsewhere on the Web

The Intelligent Product-Delivery Systems home page at Rutgers University

Kit Yam’s home page

More on how microwave ovens work is available at How Stuff Works by Marshall Brain

by Rogene M. Eichler West

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