Autoclave Sterilization: Process & Guidelines

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  • 0:04 Sterilization
  • 1:10 Autoclave Basic Principles
  • 2:05 How Do Autoclaves Work?
  • 3:51 Confirming Sterilization
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jose Hernandez
This lesson will cover sterilization via an autoclave and how this equipment can be used in a wide range of fields to kill harmful organisms that survive conventional cleaning methods.


So what's sterilization and why is it so important in such a wide range of fields, such as hospitals, research facilities, and even tattoo parlors? Sterilization is the removal of all microbes, spores, and viruses from any piece of equipment that came in contact with potential hazardous materials.

In hospitals, the high cost of medical equipment makes sterilization an ideal method to not just destroy microbes but also is more cost effective. In a research facility, sterilization of media, equipment, glassware, and even plastic ware, is necessary to achieve results necessary for an experiment to succeed. In a more common setting, a tattoo parlor will need to sterilize its equipment between clients to avoid any possible infections.

A common method to sterilize equipment is by autoclaving. Autoclaving is the use of pressurized steam and high temperature to kill microbes, spores, or viruses that are hard to destroy using conventional disinfection methods. Autoclaves can be found in different sizes, from as small as a crock pot to bigger than conventional refrigerators, depending on its location and the main purpose of the autoclave.

Basic Principles of Autoclaves

Autoclaves use pressurized steam as their sterilization agent. The basic concept of an autoclave is to have each item sterilized - whether it is a liquid, plastic ware, or glassware - using direct contact with steam at a specific temperature and pressure for a specific amount of time. Time, steam, temperature, and pressure are the four main parameters required for a successful sterilization using an autoclave.

The amount of time and temperature required for sterilization depends on the type of material being autoclaved. Using higher temperatures for sterilization requires shorter times. The most common temperatures used are 121°C and 132°C. In order for steam to reach these high temperatures, steam has to be pumped into the chamber at a pressure higher than normal atmospheric pressure.

Now that we have covered the basic principle of how autoclaves use pressurized steam to sterilize contaminated materials, we will now go over how autoclaves operate.

How Do Autoclaves Work?

Items requiring sterilization, whether it is medical equipment previously used during surgical procedures or liquid media required for research experiments, are placed inside a chamber and sealed. As previously mentioned, steam used in autoclaves is pumped at pressures higher than normal atmospheric pressure. In order to achieve this, air inside the chamber needs to be removed. This step differs depending on the design of the autoclave.

The two main designs are gravity displacement sterilizer and high speed pre-vacuum sterilizer. The gravity displacement sterilizer utilizes a drain vent in which air is forced out by steam entering through the top or the side of the chamber. The high speed pre-vacuum sterilizer, as the name implies, is fitted with a vacuum pump that removes air, allowing steam to enter the chamber. Although the mechanism of removing air differs in these two designs, the final result in this step remains the same; to remove air from the chamber to allow steam to enter.

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