An autoclave is a machine used to carry out industrial and scientific processes requiring elevated temperature and pressure in relation to ambient pressure and/or temperature. Autoclaves are used before surgical procedures to perform sterilization and in the chemical industry to cure coatings and vulcanize rubber and for hydrothermal synthesis. Industrial autoclaves are used in industrial applications, especially in the manufacturing of composites.
Many autoclaves are used to sterilize equipment and supplies by subjecting them to pressurized saturated steam at 121 °C for around 30-60 minutes at a pressure of 15 psi above atmospheric pressure (205 kPa or 2.02 atm) depending on the size of the load and the contents. The autoclave was invented by Charles Chamberland in 1879, although a precursor known as the steam digester was created by Denis Papin in 1679. The name comes from Greek auto-, ultimately meaning self, and Latin clavis meaning key, thus a self-locking device.
A medical autoclave is a device that uses steam to sterilize equipment and other objects. This means that all bacteria, viruses, fungi, and spores are inactivated. However, prions, such as those associated with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, and some toxins released by certain bacteria, such as Cereulide, may not be destroyed by autoclaving at the typical 134 °C for three minutes or 121 °C for 15 minutes and instead should be immersed in sodium hydroxide (1N NaOH) and heated in a gravity displacement autoclave at 121 °C for 30 min, cleaned, rinsed in water and subjected to routine sterilization. Although a wide range of archaea species, including Geogemma barosii, can survive and even reproduce at temperatures found in autoclaves, their growth rate is so slow at the lower temperatures in the less extreme environments occupied by humans that it is unlikely they could compete with other organisms. None of them are known to be infectious or otherwise pose a health risk to humans; in fact, their biochemistry is so different from our own and their multiplication rate is so slow that microbiologists need not worry about them.
Autoclaves are found in many medical settings, laboratories, and other places that need to ensure the sterility of an object. Many procedures today employ single-use items rather than sterilizable, reusable items. This first happened with hypodermic needles, but today many surgical instruments (such as forceps, needle holders, and scalpel handles) are commonly single-use rather than reusable items (see waste autoclave). Autoclaves are of particular importance in poorer countries due to the much greater amount of equipment that is re-used. Providing stove-top or solar autoclaves to rural medical centers has been the subject of several proposed medical aid missions.
Because damp heat is used, heat-labile products (such as some plastics) cannot be sterilized this way or they will melt. Paper and other products that may be damaged by steam must also be sterilized another way. In all autoclaves, items should always be separated to allow the steam to penetrate the load evenly.
Autoclaving is often used to sterilize medical waste prior to disposal in the standard municipal solid waste stream. This application has become more common as an alternative to incineration due to environmental and health concerns raised because of the combustion by-products emitted by incinerators, especially from the small units which were commonly operated at individual hospitals. Incineration or a similar thermal oxidation process is still generally mandated for pathological waste and other very toxic or infectious medical waste. For liquid waste, an effluent decontamination system is the equivalent hardware.
In dentistry, autoclaves provide sterilization of dental instruments.
In most of the industrialized world medical-grade autoclaves are regulated medical devices. Many medical-grade autoclaves are therefore limited to running regulator-approved cycles. Because they are optimized for continuous hospital use, they favor rectangular designs, require demanding maintenance regimens, and are costly to operate. (A properly calibrated medical-grade autoclave uses thousands of gallons of water each day, independent of task, with correspondingly high electric power consumption.)
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