Dielectric heating, also known as electronic heating, RF (radio frequency) heating, and high-frequency heating, is the process in which a high-frequency alternating electric field, or radio wave or microwave electromagnetic radiation heats a dielectric material. At higher frequencies, this heating is caused by molecular dipole rotation within the dielectric.
RF dielectric heating at intermediate[clarification needed] frequencies, due to its greater penetration over microwave heating, shows greater promise than microwave systems as a method of very rapidly heating and uniformly preparing certain food items, and also killing parasites and pests in certain harvested crops.
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Molecular rotation occurs in materials containing polar molecules having an electrical dipole moment, with the consequence that they will align themselves in an electromagnetic field. If the field is oscillating, as it is in an electromagnetic wave or in a rapidly oscillating electric field, these molecules rotate continuously by aligning with it. This is called dipole rotation, or dipolar polarisation. As the field alternates, the molecules reverse direction. Rotating molecules push, pull, and collide with other molecules (through electrical forces), distributing the energy to adjacent molecules and atoms in the material. Once distributed, this energy appears as heat.
Temperature is related to the average kinetic energy (energy of motion) of the atoms or molecules in a material, so agitating the molecules in this way increases the temperature of the material. Thus, dipole rotation is a mechanism by which energy in the form of electromagnetic radiation can raise the temperature of an object. There are also many other mechanisms by which this conversion occurs.
Dipole rotation is the mechanism normally referred to as dielectric heating, and is most widely observable in the microwave oven where it operates most efficaciously on liquid water, and also, but much less so, on fats and sugars. This is because fats and sugar molecules are far less polar than water molecules, and thus less affected by the forces generated by the alternating electromagnetic fields. Outside of cooking, the effect can be used generally to heat solids, liquids, or gases, provided they contain some electric dipoles.
Dielectric heating involves the heating of electrically insulating materials by dielectric loss. A changing electric field across the material causes energy to be dissipated as the molecules attempt to line up with the continuously changing electric field. This changing electric field may be caused by an electromagnetic wave propagating in free space (as in a microwave oven), or it may be caused by a rapidly alternating electric field inside a capacitor. In the latter case, there is no freely-propagating electromagnetic wave, and the changing electric field may be seen as analogous to the electric component of an antenna near field. In this case, although the heating is accomplished by changing the electric field inside the capacitive cavity at radio-frequency (RF) frequencies, no actual radio waves are either generated or absorbed. In this sense, the effect is the direct electrical analog of magnetic induction heating, which is also near-field effect (thus not involving radio waves).
Frequencies in the range of 10–100 MHz are necessary to cause efficient dielectric heating, although higher frequencies work equally well or better, and in some materials (especially liquids) lower frequencies also have significant heating effects, often due to more unusual mechanisms. For example, in conductive liquids such as salt water, ion-drag causes heating, as charged ions are "dragged" more slowly back and forth in the liquid under influence of the electric field, striking liquid molecules in the process and transferring kinetic energy to them, which is eventually translated into molecular vibrations and thus into thermal energy.
Dielectric heating at low frequencies, as a near-field effect, requires a distance from electromagnetic radiator to absorber of less than 1/2π ≈ 1/6 of a wavelength. It is thus a contact process or near-contact process, since it usually sandwiches the material to be heated (usually a non-metal) between metal plates taking the place of the dielectric in what is effectively a very large capacitor. However, actual electrical contact is not necessary for heating a dielectric inside a capacitor, as the electric fields that form inside a capacitor subjected to a voltage do not require electrical contact of the capacitor plates with the (non-conducting) dielectric material between the plates. Because lower frequency electrical fields penetrate non-conductive materials far more deeply than do microwaves, heating pockets of water and organisms deep inside dry materials like wood, it can be used to rapidly heat and prepare many non-electrically conducting food and agricultural items, so long as they fit between the capacitor plates.
At very high frequencies, the wavelength of the electromagnetic field becomes shorter than the distance between the metal walls of the heating cavity, or than the dimensions of the walls themselves. This is the case inside a microwave oven. In such cases, conventional far-field electromagnetic waves form (the cavity no longer acts as a pure capacitor, but rather as an antenna), and are absorbed to cause heating, but the dipole-rotation mechanism of heat deposition remains the same. However, microwaves are not efficient at causing the heating effects of low frequency fields that depend on slower molecular motion, such as those caused by ion-drag.
Dielectric heating must be distinguished from Joule heating of conductive media, which is caused by induced electric currents in the media. For dielectric heating, the generated power density per volume is given by:
where is the angular frequency of the exciting radiation, is the imaginary part of the complex relative permittivity of the absorbing material, is the permittivity of free space and the electric field strength. The imaginary part of the (frequency-dependent) relative permittivity is a measure for the ability of a dielectric material to convert electromagnetic field energy into heat.
If the conductivity of the material is small, or the frequency is high, such that (with ), then dielectric heating is the dominant mechanism of loss of energy from the electromagnetic field into the medium.
Microwave frequencies penetrate conductive materials, including semi-solid substances like meat and living tissue, to a distance defined by the skin effect. The penetration essentially stops where all the penetrating microwave energy has been converted to heat in the tissue. Microwave ovens used to heat food are not set to the frequency for optimal absorption by water. If that was so, then the piece of food or liquid in question would absorb all microwave radiation in its outer layer, leading to a cool, unheated centre and a superheated surface. Instead, the frequency selected allows energy to penetrate deeper into the heated food. The frequency of a household microwave oven is 2.45 GHz, while the frequency for optimal absorbency by water is around 10 GHz. 
Radio-frequency (RF) heating
The use of high-frequency electric fields for heating dielectric materials had been proposed in the 1930s. For example, U.S. Patent 2,147,689 (application by Bell Telephone Laboratories, dated 1937) states "This invention relates to heating systems for dielectric materials and the object of the invention is to heat such materials uniformly and substantially simultaneously throughout their mass. It has been proposed therefore to heat such materials simultaneously throughout their mass by means of the dielectric loss produced in them when they are subjected to a high voltage, high frequency field." This patent proposed radio frequency (RF) heating at 10 to 20 megahertz (wavelength 15 to 30 meters). Such wavelengths were far longer than the cavity used, and thus made use of near-field effects and not electromagnetic waves. (Commercial microwave ovens use wavelengths only 1% as long.)
In agriculture, RF dielectric heating has been widely tested and is increasingly used as a way to kill pests in certain food crops after harvest, such as walnuts still in the shell. Because RF heating can heat foods more uniformly than is the case with microwave heating, RF heating holds promise as a way to process foods quickly.
Microwave heating, as distinct from RF heating, is a sub-category of dielectric heating at frequencies above 100 MHz, where an electromagnetic wave can be launched from a small dimension emitter and guided through space to the target. Modern microwave ovens make use of electromagnetic waves with electric fields of much higher frequency and shorter wavelength than RF heaters. Typical domestic microwave ovens operate at 2.45 GHz, but 915 MHz ovens also exist. This means that the wavelengths employed in microwave heating are 12 or 33 centimetres (4.7 or 13.0 in). This provides for highly efficient, but less penetrative, dielectric heating.
Although a capacitor-like set of plates can be used at microwave frequencies, they are not necessary, since the microwaves are already present as far field type EM radiation, and their absorption does not require the same proximity to a small antenna as does RF heating. The material to be heated (a non-metal) can therefore simply be placed in the path of the waves, and heating takes place in a non-contact process which does not require capacitative conductive plates.
Microwave volumetric heating
Microwave volumetric heating is a commercially available method of heating liquids, suspensions, or solids in a continuous flow on an industrial scale. Microwave volumetric heating has a greater penetration depth, of up to 42 mm, which is an even penetration through the entire volume of the flowing product. This is advantageous in commercial applications where increased shelf-life can be achieved, with increased microbial kill at temperatures 10–15 °C lower than when using conventional heating systems.
Application for microwave volumetic heating:
- Flash pasteurization
- Microwave chemistry
- Food preservation
- Biofuel production
- Specific absorption rate
- Electrosurgery, which requires direct joule heating of tissue, and thus directly transmitted high frequency currents
- Piyasena P; et al. (2003), "Radio frequency heating of foods: principles, applications and related properties—a review", Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 43 (6): 587–606, doi:10.1080/10408690390251129, PMID 14669879
-  Archived July 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine.
- U.S. Patent 2,147,689. Method and apparatus for heating dielectric materials - J.G. Chafee
- "Diathermy", Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. Retrieved August 29, 2013, from Dictionary.com website
- Metaxas, A.C. (1996). Foundations of Electroheat, A Unified Approach. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 0-471-95644-9.
- Metaxas, A.C., Meredith, R.J. (1983). Industrial Microwave Heating (IEE Power Engineering Series). Institution of Engineering and Technology. ISBN 0-906048-89-3.
- U.S. Patent 2,147,689 – Method and apparatus for heating dielectric materials