Abstract The influence of microwave pre-treatment on mineral ore breakage has been investigated. Samples of lead–zinc ore were microwave pre-treated prior to strength testing and change in strength with microwave exposure time determined. Comparisons of change in strength were made between microwave-treated and -untreated material. Using a multimode microwave cavity, it was found that strength could be significantly reduced in 0.5 s when using 15 kW of microwave power. Lower powers in this type of cavity were found to be less effective. Drop weight tests were used to quantify the change in strength in terms of reduction in required comminution energy. Reductions of up to 40% were achieved for particles of mean size 14.53 mm. Preliminary tests in a single-mode microwave cavity gave strength reductions of 50% at 10 kW of microwave power with a residence time of only 0.1 s, indicating that high electric field strength is important in the failure of ore. A preliminary energy balance indicating the benefits of single-mode heating is presented.