What Is Ethylene Oxide? - Uses, Safety & Technology

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  • 0:06 Uses of Gas
  • 0:48 Ethylene Oxide Gas…
  • 2:30 Benefits of Using…
  • 4:08 Dangers of Using…
  • 5:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson will discuss how a type of gas, called ethylene oxide, can sterilize equipment. We'll talk about the way by which it does this, what its advantages are, as well as the dangers it poses to human health if used improperly.

Uses of Gas

Gas is a state of matter. It can be used for breathing, as in the case of air, or for cooking as we do with methane. Gas is found in the atmosphere above us and in the ground below us. It's everywhere. Its uses are many. It can even be used for the purposes of sterilization, or the killing off of all living microbes on inanimate objects, as you'll discover in this lesson.

However, as with methane gas or even oxygen, it's not without its pitfalls, namely, the ability of this particular gas to explode if not used properly.

Ethylene Oxide Gas Sterilization

The gas I'm talking about is called ethylene oxide. This is a type of flammable and explosive gas that is used for the sterilization of medical equipment and devices.

The way by which ethylene oxide kills off microbes is through a reaction known as alkylation. This is a process whereby a hydrogen atom is replaced by an alkyl group. The details of that are best left for a chemistry lesson, but I'll explain what that means in the context of something like a bacterium the gas ends up killing.

Let's pretend our bacterium is a car. The car is made up of many different parts that help it move. These parts include the engine and its wheels. If you replace the smooth, round, rubber wheels with something like square wooden pegs, the car wouldn't be able to move very well. Similarly, if you alkylate, or replace, an important component of a bacterium's proteins or genome, it won't be able to function.

This alkylation takes place in a very special chamber into which ethylene oxide is pumped into. Following treatment with the ethylene oxide gas, the material being sterilized is aerated out in order to get rid of any excess gas. This is super important, for if this doesn't occur, some serious side effects may occur. These side effects will be discussed in just a little bit.

The Benefits of Using Ethylene Oxide Gas

There are several advantages to using ethylene oxide gas for sterilization.

First of all, it is a sterilant, meaning it is something that kills every living microbe, including very difficult to kill bacterial spores, on an inanimate object or surface.

Secondly, it can be used to sterilize equipment that is heat-sensitive. For example, using a machine called an autoclave to sterilize something like a heat-sensitive plastic would be a very bad idea. That's because an autoclave is like a really hot sauna. Like a cube of ice, a piece of heat-sensitive plastic would simply melt in the high temperature the autoclave produces.

Ethylene oxide gas, on the other hand, uses lower temperatures than an autoclave and can therefore safely sterilize heat-sensitive equipment.

Furthermore, ethylene oxide is better for moisture-sensitive equipment, as well. Again, an autoclave, which uses moist heat at a high temperature to sterilize things, would ruin moisture sensitive equipment, but ethylene oxide can be safely used for materials and equipment that are sensitive to moisture.

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