What Is an Autoclave and How Does It Work?

An autoclave is a device that sterilizes supplies and equipment by exposing them to pressurized steam for a set time. Autoclaves are essential in laboratory and medical settings, as well as other industries that must sterilize materials. Continue reading to learn more about what an autoclave is and how it works.

Autoclaves Denature Proteins

Autoclaves kill microorganisms with steam and high pressure. Bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores contaminate medical and laboratory instruments and can cause illness. Autoclaves destroy proteins in these microorganisms through heat denaturation.

During the sterilization cycle, heat in the autoclave causes the molecules in microorganisms to vibrate, breaking hydrogen bonds. The broken bonds cause the proteins to unfold and lose structure, killing the microorganism.

General Sterilization Process

When it's time to sterilize, the autoclave operator places items into the chamber and locks the door. The autoclave must seal during the sterilization phase to prevent steam from escaping and air from entering. A safety valve will relieve excess pressure if needed to maintain the correct parameters.

Once closed, the autoclave removes air within the chamber and replaces it with steam. The temperature and pressure in the chamber rise. During the sterilization phase, the autoclave reaches the required temperature to sterilize the contents. It maintains this temperature for a predetermined time, typically 15–20 minutes.

Finally, the machine releases pressure through an exhaust valve. Once the pressure reaches the desired level, the contents remain hot, so operators must take care when removing these items from the chamber.

Correctly Load the Autoclave

It's essential for people who work in sterile processing departments to understand what autoclaves are and how they work because the machines cannot function without human input. Operators must load items into the chamber correctly. The sterilizing agent must directly contact all items’ surfaces for the complete exposure period. The operator must leave sufficient space between loaded items to allow air removal from the chamber—air in the chamber will prevent the steam from touching the load. The space between items will also let the sterilizing agent, the steam, circulate.

Not all materials can withstand the moisture, temperature, and pressure in an autoclave. It's important for autoclave operators to use compatible processes in order to avoid damaging equipment and creating health and safety hazards.

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