What Exactly IS an Autoclave Sterilizer?

what is an autoclave sterilizer

Medical equipment companies bat about the term “autoclave sterilizer” with the expectation that everyone knows what they are talking about. In reality, this vital piece of infection control equipment remains a mystery to many medical professionals and laypeople across the country.

Humble Beginnings

The origin of the autoclave sterilizer dates back to 1679 when French physicist Denis Papin invented a tool called the “steam digester.” The device was used to create a high-pressure steam environment to extract fat from bones and break them down into bone meal. After several failed attempts to create a stable pressurized steam environment, Papin eventually created a device akin to modern pressure cookers that were equipped with a pressure release valve, Rather than the contents boiling at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, its contents boiled at 250 degrees, allowing the heat to quickly penetrate whatever was inside.

steam digester

Dennis Papin’s Steam Digester from 1679

With the discovery by Louis Pasteur that germs caused disease in 1862, his colleague, Charles Chamberland, began looking at the steam digester for its medical applications. What resulted was a device that created high-pressure steam that could be applied to medical instruments for sterilization.

How does an Autoclave Sterilizer Work?

Since its humble beginnings nearly more than 150 years ago, the autoclave sterilizer has functioned on principles of high-pressure steam applied consistently over time. Today’s models hold instruments in a pressurized environment at 250 degrees Fahrenheit (121 degrees Celsius) for 15 to 20 minutes. At this point, the protective cell membranes around microorganisms and bacteria are destroyed, leaving whatever has been placed into the autoclave free from the infectious material. While some models are equipped with a door that opens automatically, compact countertop size or high-efficiency components, the basic function remains the same.

Elara 11 Pre/Post - Vacuum Class B Sterilizer

Here’s an example of a TUTTNAUER Autoclave/Sterilizer

A Variety of Uses

The most common use of an autoclave is to sterilize metal surgical instruments and medical tools for use by another patient. Long a favorite of hospitals where instruments are sterilized and repackaged in preparation for other procedures, autoclaves can also be found in dental practices where instrumentation is seldom disposable. Because of the high temperatures that are used inside of the machine, it is not safe for certain plastics. Still, the autoclave has been consistently used in environments where infection control and sterility is essential to patient well-being.

On an industrial level, autoclaves are used to sterilize disposable infectious waste before it is recycled or disposed of altogether. Pathogenic hospital waste such as rubber items, gowns, dressings, and culture media can be processed using the next generation of autoclaves that achieve sterilization without higher pressures and temperatures that are common to clinical models. These large-scale autoclaves ensure hospital waste does not contaminate landfills, water supplies, or other natural resources during disposal.

Whether it is bacteria on a bioptome or microbes on a microkeratome, the autoclave sterilizer gives medical providers, dentists, hospitals, and clinics a way to ensure the safety of their patients from one procedure to the next. To find out which autoclave is right for your practice, visit Foremost Medical Equipment.