In its most basic form the autoclave is a pressure cooker. Water is heated in a pressurized environment to create steam. Using pressure makes it possible to heat to higher temperatures with less energy. Autoclaves are usually made of steel and have various configurations for removing air prior to pressurization. Downward displacement autoclaves use gravity to remove air. Steam pulsing autoclaves use pulses of steam along with pressurizing and depressurizing to reach optimum pressure. Vacuum pump autoclaves suck air out for pressurization. Superatmospheric autoclaves are a combination of steam pulsing and vacuum pump techniques.
How Does an Autoclave Work?
An autoclave sterilizes items by heating them with steam to a very high temperature. Some common temperatures at which autoclaves operate are: 115 degrees C/10 p.s.i., 121 degrees C/15 p.s.i., and 132 degrees C/27 p.s.i. (p.s.i.=pounds per square inch). The temperature, pressure and time of operation depend on the degree of sterilization needed.
What Does an Autoclave Kill?
An autoclave using standard settings can kill most bacteria, spores, viruses and fungi. However, most prions are not killed by an autoclave using standard settings and some organisms can survive at temperatures above 120 degrees C. Most doctor's offices, tattoo parlors, dentist offices and other places where instruments might come in contact with contaminants have a small autoclave on site for disinfection. Hospitals use larger autoclaves that look similar to industrial dishwashers to sterilize many items at once.
Heat kills microorganisms by causing vital proteins to coagulate. The proteins stick together causing fatal damage to the microorganism. An autoclave cooks microorganisms in the same way a pressure cooker cooks food, but at a higher temperature. Autoclaves use steam instead of dry heat because steam can more effectively transmit heat to the microorganisms.