What is an Autoclave? - Definition & Uses

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  • 0:01 What is an Autoclave?
  • 1:14 How It Works
  • 2:28 Uses
  • 3:34 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

Get to know what an autoclave is and how it is used. We will explore the different ways in which autoclaves are used. There is a short quiz to help you check your knowledge from this lesson.

What Is an Autoclave?

Have you given much thought to how surgeons are able to use the same surgical tools many times without passing the germs from one person to the next person they do surgery on? Or maybe you wonder how nail salons keep from passing fungal infections between clients. You probably figured that it has something to do with cleaning the instruments that they use. Yet, you know that simply cleaning these items would not be enough to keep from passing germs or infections. Something must be done in order to sterilize, or kill all living organisms on these tools.

This is an autoclave that is used in a medical facility.
Picture of Autoclave

The autoclave carries out that exact function of sterilizing materials. It is a machine that uses pressure and steam to reach and maintain a temperature that is too high for any microorganisms or their spores to live. Microorganisms are what most people commonly refer to as germs. These are the bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites, etc. that are able to cause infections in our bodies. Spores are the environment-resistant form of the microorganisms. Even though they are able to withstand harsher conditions, they still can be killed if extreme conditions are maintained for an extended period of time.

How It Works

Autoclaves are pressure cookers very similar to the ones that you see in stores. If you have used or are familiar with pressure cookers, then you know that foods cook a lot faster in a pressure cooker than they do in a regular pot or in the oven. This is due to the intense heat and pressure that are applied to the food. The same mechanism works against living microorganisms.

Once an autoclave is started, steam is pushed into the chamber that contains the items that are being sterilized. As the steam goes in, the pressure and temperature within the chamber are increased. Most autoclaves are set to increase steam pressure until a temperature of at least 121 degrees Celsius is reached (about 250 degrees Fahrenheit). This temperature and pressure will remain at this level for at least 15 minutes. This is a high enough temperature for a long enough period of time to kill any and all microorganisms and their spores.

The Autoclave must reach 121 degrees Celsius.
Picture of settings on autoclave

The high temperatures cause the internal parts of the microorganisms to essentially cook. Once the internal parts cannot function in the microorganisms, they will die. The steam and pressure are released and brought down to normal room temperature and pressure after the 15 or more minutes of running. The items that were autoclaved will remain sterile until they are contaminated by new microorganisms.

Uses

Surgeons need the autoclave to prevent passing infections.
Picture of surgery

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