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Infrared element glowing red on a halogen ceramic cooktop

Halogen cooktops (infrared hobs)

by Chris Woodford. Last updated: May 15, 2014.

It takes a mere three minutes to boil an egg—but, ironically, it can take two or three times longer than that for your stove to get hot enough for cooking in the first place. That's the trouble with electric cookers: unlike gas, which makes a flame as soon as you turn it on, electric cooktops (hobs) take quite a bit of time to get hot. Halogen cooktops give you the clean convenience of electric cooking with all the speed and power of gas. They make heat with a bright burst of red light—but how exactly do they work?

Photo: An infrared halogen cooktop in action. You can see a bright red light, but most of the energy this halogen element is pumping out is actually heat.

Why cook things anyway?

Have you ever stopped to think about the science of cooking? Probably not—but let's think about it now. We cook food to kill harmful bacteria that may be lurking inside it, so the food becomes safe for us to eat. Often food tastes much better cooked too; a light and fluffy sponge cake tastes much more scrumptious than a bowl full of eggs, butter, and flour! Pretty obviously, cooked food is usually hot, while uncooked food is cold. The essence of cooking is to heat food over a period of time that's long enough to kill the bacteria and transform the food's structure or appearance. In short, cooking is all about moving heat from the cooker into the food.

How does heat move?

If you know anything at all about heat, you'll probably know that it doesn't like to stay in one place. Hot things tend to pass their heat onto other things nearby—and they do this in one of three different ways called conduction, convection, and radiation.

Animation showing how heat circulates in convection

If you touch a car that's been standing out in the sun on a summer's day, you'll feel the heat instantly. The heat from the hot metal flows instantly into your hand by a process called conduction. You may have heard the word conduction linked with electricity and heat conduction is very similar: heat can flow through a material much like electricity can. If you push a metal poker into a red-hot fire, heat will flow into the poker from the fire by conduction. And it will keep flowing into the poker until it's as hot as the fire around it. Take the poker out of the fire and plunge it into a bucket of water and you'll see a great whoosh of steam. Now heat flows from the poker to the water, also by conduction. The process of conduction transfers heat between two things that are in direct contact.

Not all heat moves by conduction. If you've ever heated a pan of soup on top of your stove, you'll have noticed how it soon starts bubbling. That's because heat is flowing through it by another process called convection. The soup at the bottom of the pan is closest to the hot stove. It warms up and, because hot materials are less dense (effectively lighter) than colder materials, it starts to rise upward. When it gets to the top of the pan, it cools and falls back down. Meanwhile, more soup is starting to rise up from the bottom of the pan and take its place. So there's a constant pattern of warming and cooling that gradually moves heat throughout the pan. This convection process is how heat travels through fluids (liquids and gases) that are near to something hot. The fluids carry the heat systematically away from the heat source a bit like a conveyor belt.

Picture: Convection pumps heat into a saucepan like a beating heart. The pattern of warming, rising soup (red arrows) and falling, cooling soup (blue arrows) works like a conveyor belt that carries heat systematically from the hot stove into the cooler soup (orange arrows). This circulating pattern of liquid is called a convection current.

Photo of lentil soup on a cooktop.

There's a third way heat can move and it's called radiation. If you've ever sat near a camp fire, you'll know heat beams out from the fire, toward your face, in a direct line. The closer you sit to the fire, the warmer you feel. If anything blocks the direct path between the fire and your face—for example, if someone walks in front of you—you'll notice the difference straight away. Heat radiation is unlike both conduction and convection. It's unlike conduction because you don't have to be touching the heat source (the fire) to feel the radiated heat. And it's unlike convection because there doesn't have to be any liquid or water in between to carry the heat toward you. We can feel radiant heat from the Sun even though most of the vast distance between us and that blazing star is empty space.

Photo: When you heat soup in a pan on a cooktop, you're seeing heat move by conduction, convection, and radiation. Heat conducts from the hot pan into the soup. Heat moves from one part of the soup to another by both conduction and convection. Stand anywhere near the pan and you'll feel heat being given off by radiation.

Infrared radiation is hot light

Why does sunlight feel hot if the Sun is sending out light? Sunlight is actually a mixture of light and heat—of cool light we can see and a kind of "hot light" we can't see called radiation. All hot objects give off radiation in this way. A fire feels hot because a steady stream of infrared radiation beams out from the burning wood and coal and hits our face. Infrared radiation is similar to visible light, but it has a longer wavelength and a lower frequency. In other words, the waves that carry it through the air or space are bigger than light waves and arrive less often. Infrared radiation and visible light (the light we can see) are two kinds of what we call electromagnetic radiation. They're types of energy that travel out as an up-and-down, wave-shaped pattern of electricity and magnetism. X-rays, radio waves, microwaves, and gamma rays are other kinds of electromagnetic radiation. Together, all these things make up what's known as the electromagnetic spectrum.

Electromagnetic spectrum by NASA.

Artwork: Infrared radiation is a type of light with a slightly longer wavelength and lower frequency than the light we can see (visible light). Artwork courtesy of NASA (follow the link for a bigger version of this image).

What makes one type of electromagnetic radiation different from another? Like light waves, waves of infrared travel at the incredibly fast speed of light: 300,000 km (186,000 miles) per second. It takes just over 8 minutes for the Sun's light and heat to reach Earth, even though it has to travel 149 million kilometers (93 million miles) to get here! There's no real difference between red light and infrared radiation. It's pretty much the same stuff. The difference is simply that our eyes have evolved to see red (and other colors) of light, but they cannot detect the lower frequencies in infrared. Other creatures are built differently. Snakes have special pits in their face that can detect infrared radiation. That means they can hunt at night, even when there's little light about, by detecting the heat that nearby animals give off.

How to cook with light

The Sun makes Earth warm and light by sending out a mixture of visible light and invisible radiation. Electric light bulbs work the same way. Old-style, incandescent lamps make light when electricity flows through a thin, coiled wire called a filament. The filament gets so hot that it glows white hot and gives off a bright light. This is actually a very inefficient way of making light, because most of the electrical energy the bulb uses is given off as heat and wasted. Energy-efficient lamps work an entirely different way: they use fluorescence to make cool light by crashing atoms together. They use only a fraction of the energy of incandescent lights because they produce very little waste heat.

Cooking with halogen

Cleaning a ceramic cooktop.

When you switch on a halogen ring, a dazzling bright red light immediately begins to pump out a mixture of infrared radiation and visible red light. This time, it's the radiant heat we're interested in harnessing and the light is the wasted byproduct. The heat travels out from the halogen lamp at the speed of light, instantly warming the ceramic glass cooktop above it. (The cooktop is made from a specially toughened glass that can withstand sudden high temperatures and the weight of heavy cooking pots without cracking.) If you stand a cooking pot on the glass, it warms up by a mixture of radiation and conduction: heat radiates into the pot from the halogen lamp, but it's also transmitted into the pot by conduction from the hot glass just beneath it. If you have soup in your cooking pot, it gradually warms up by convection just like with a conventional stove. So, while it's true to say that halogen cooktops work using radiation, they actually cook with a mixture of conduction, convection, and radiation.

Photo: A typical halogen cooktop. You cook on top of a piece of thick glass—so keeping your cooker clean is fairly quick and painless. You can clean it with an ordinary cream cleaner (slightly abrasive), wiped on and then rinsed off with a clean cloth. Really stubborn burned food can be removed with something like a Stanley knife blade pressed at a very shallow angle to the glass (be careful with your fingers). But be sure to read and follow the manufacturer's cleaning instructions.

How halogen lamps work

A close-up of a car headlamp showing the lenses inside

Photo: This car's headlamps are fitted with super-bright halogen bulbs.

Halogen cooktops use hugely powerful lamps similar to normal incandescent light bulbs only hotter and brighter. When electricity flows through the filament, the lamp gives off light and gets hot. In a normal incandescent lamp, the filament is made of tungsten metal and surrounded by a nonreactive ("inert") gas called argon. The argon is there to make the filament last longer: if the filament were surrounded by air, the oxygen in the air would make the filament burn up very quickly. But even with argon, the tungsten filament still gradually disintegrates over time, causing the bulb to blacken and grow dimmer before it eventually "blows".

In a halogen lamp, the bulb contains a tiny amount of a halogen gas such as iodine or bromine, which is at a higher temperature and pressure than in a normal bulb. The halogen constantly regenerates the tungsten filament, effectively "bouncing back" tungsten atoms to rebuild the filament when it starts to disintegrate. This means the filament lasts much longer than it does in a normal lamp. The temperature of a halogen bulb (typically 250-600°C or 480-1100°F) is plenty hot enough for cooking food.

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Text copyright © Chris Woodford 2007. All rights reserved. Full copyright notice and terms of use.

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