by Chris Woodford. Last updated: September 12, 2015.
Be glad, be very glad that your eyes aren't as powerful as
electron microscopes. If they were, you'd see the world around you
crawling with all kinds of horrible bugs. How filthy and nasty life would seem! Just as well, then, that we
have autoclaves: machines for sterilizing such things as
surgical instruments and hospital equipment. They're a bit like giant pressure
cookers that use the power of steam to kill off germs that would
survive a simple washing with boiling water and detergents.
Let's take a closer look at what they are and how they work!
Photo: Looking inside the open door of a large autoclave. This one is used by the United States Air Force at Wright Aeronautical Laboratories for assembling composite materials. Photo by US Air Force courtesy of Defense Imagery.
What does an autoclave do?
Although autoclaves have many important scientific and industrial uses, which we'll cover later, the main focus of this article is going to be on how these handy machines are used in sterilization.
You've probably heard of pressure cookers? They were all the rage until microwave ovens became popular in the 1980s. They're like over-sized saucepans with lids that seal on tightly and, when you fill them with water, they produce lots of high-pressure steam that cooks your food more quickly (if you want to know more, please see the box at the bottom of this page).
Autoclaves work in a similar way, but they're typically used
in a more extreme form of cooking: to blast the bugs and germs on
things with steam long enough to sterilize them. The extra
pressure in an autoclave means that water boils at a temperature higher than
its normal boiling point—roughly 20°C hotter—so it holds and
carries more heat and kills microbes more effectively. A lengthy blast of high-pressure
steam is much more effective at penetrating and sterilizing things
than a quick wipe in ordinary hot water!
Photo: Autoclaves are widely used in hospitals. Here, sterilized bedding is being unloaded from an autoclave at a US military hospital in Japan in 1976. Photo by courtesy of US Army and Defense Imagery.
What is pressure?
Pressure is the way a force acts over a surface. If you pump air
into a bicycle tire, the energetic molecules of gas
rush about inside, colliding with the tire walls and pressing outward. The tire stays
springy and inflated because the air molecules push its inner walls with as much
(or greater) force than the air molecules outside are pushing the outer walls. If you heat up a
tire, you give the air molecules more energy. They rush about faster,
collide with the rubber walls of the tire more often and exert even
more force. The tire feels more pumped up or, if you're unlucky,
In physics, we say the pressure on a surface is the force
pressing on it divided by the area over which the force acts:
Pressure = Force / Area
This simple equation tells you that if you apply a given force to half the area, you double the pressure. Apply the force to twice the area and you halve the pressure.
It's very helpful to know about pressure in everyday life. Suppose
you want to put a poster up on your bedroom wall. Assuming you don't
have a hammer, you'll find it much easier to use thumbtacks (drawing pins) than
nails. A thumbtack has a huge flat head connected to a very thin
pin with a sharp tip. When you push on the flat head, you apply a
certain amount of force to a fairly big area. The force is
transmitted right through the pin to the tip, where it now acts on an
area of metal that's maybe 100 times smaller. So the pressure on the
tip is effectively 100 times greater—and that's why the pin enters
your wall so easily. Snowshoes and tractor tires use exactly the same
principle only in reverse. They spread weight (the force of gravity) over a bigger area to
stop your body (or a machine) from sinking into soft ground.
Photo: Thumbtacks (drawing pins) use the science of pressure. The difference in area between
the head you push and the sharp point that enters the wall effectively magnifies your pushing force.
How pressure and temperature affect boiling
Suppose you have a saucepan full of potatoes that you want to
cook. You fill the pan with water, put it on a hot stove, and wait
for the water to boil. Now you probably think the water will boil
"when it's hot enough"—and that's true, but only half true.
The water will actually boil when the molecules it contains have
enough energy to escape from the liquid and form water vapor (steam) above it.
The hotter the water is, the more energetic the molecules are and the more easily they can escape.
So temperature plays an important part in making things boil.
But pressure is important too. The higher the pressure of the air
above the water, the harder it is for the molecules to break free;
the lower the pressure, the easier it is.
If you've ever tried making a cup of tea on a mountain with a
portable camping stove, you'll know the water boils at a lower
temperature at high altitudes. That's because air pressure falls the
higher up you go. At the top of Mount Everest, air pressure is about
a third of what it would be at sea level, so water boils at roughly
70°C or 158°F (see why on this MadSci forum posting). Mountain-top tea tastes pretty disgusting because the water boils
at too low a temperature: even though it's boiling,
the water is too cold to "cook" the tea leaves properly.
Read more about pressure, temperature, and how molecules behave when liquids boil.
What is an autoclave?
An autoclave is essentially just a large steel vessel through
which steam or another gas is circulated to sterilize things, perform scientific
experiments, or carry out industrial processes. Typically the chambers in autoclaves
are cylindrical, because cylinders are better able to withstand
extreme pressures than boxes, whose edges become points of
weakness that can break. The high-pressure makes
them self-sealing (the words "auto" and "clave" mean
automatic locking), though for safety reasons most are also sealed manually from
outside. Just like on a pressure cooker, a safety valve
ensures that the steam pressure cannot build up to a dangerous level.
Photo: Closing the door on a typical laboratory autoclave. Note the large handle on the right
being used to seal the door completely. Also note the dials on the right-hand side
that indicate temperature and pressure. Photo by PHAA Sarna courtesy of US Navy and Defense Imagery.
How do you use an autoclave?
Once the chamber is sealed, all the air is removed from it either
by a simple vacuum pump (in a design called
pre-vacuum) or by pumping
in steam to force the air out of the way (an alternative design called
gravity displacement). Next, steam is pumped through the chamber at a
higher pressure than normal atmospheric pressure so it reaches a temperature of about
121–140°C (250–284°F). Once the required temperature is reached,
a thermostat kicks in and starts a timer. The steam pumping continues
for a minimum of about 3 minutes and a maximum of about 15–20 minutes
(higher temperatures mean shorter times)—generally long enough to
kill most microorganisms. The exact sterilizing time depends on a
variety of factors, including the likely contamination level of the
items being autoclaved (dirty items known to be contaminated will
take longer to sterilize because they contain more microbes) and how
the autoclave is loaded up (if steam can circulate more freely,
autoclaving will be quicker and more effective).
Autoclaving is a bit like cooking, but as well as keeping an eye
on the temperature and the time, the pressure matters too!
Safety is all-important. Since you're using high-pressure,
high-temperature steam, you have to be especially careful when you
open an autoclave that there is no sudden release of pressure that
could cause a dangerous steam explosion.
Artwork: How an autoclave works (simplified): (1) Steam flows in through a pipe at the bottom and around a closed jacket that surrounds the main chamber (2), before entering the chamber itself (3). The steam sterilizes whatever has been placed inside (in this case, three blue drums) (4) before exiting through an exhaust pipe at the bottom (5). A tight door lock and gasket seal (6) keeps the steam securely inside. A safety valve (7) similar to the ones on a pressure cooker will pop out if the pressure gets too high.
Industrial and scientific autoclaves
Although best known as sterilizers, autoclaves can also be used to
carry out all sorts of industrial processes and scientific experiments that work best at high-temperatures
and pressures. Unlike sterilizing autoclaves, which usually circulate steam, industrial and scientific autoclaves
may circulate other gases to encourage particular chemical reactions to take place. Industrial autoclaves are often used for "curing" materials (applying heat to encourage the formation of long-chain polymer molecules). For example:
- Rubber can be vulcanized (heated, toughened, and hardened with sulfur) in an autoclave.
- Nylon (a plastic) can be made by "cooking" a concentrated salt solution in an autoclave to encourage what's called condensation polymerization.
- Polyethylene (polythene, another plastic) can be made by circulating air or organic peroxides through an autoclave to polymerize ethylene.
- Airplane materials made from composites are also typically cured in large industrial autoclaves.
Some autoclaves combine elements of both sterilization and industrial manufacture. For example, natural cork (wooden) bottle stoppers have to be boiled and sterilized before they're suitable for use. Traditionally, that was done in large water tanks; now it's much more likely to be done on a large scale in computer-controlled, industrial autoclaves.
Artwork: A simple industrial autoclave from the early 20th century, designed for manufacturing various industrial chemicals using acids. It's essentially a reinforced, acid-resistant cooking vessel (blue) with a removable screw-on top (orange). You can add chemical ingredients through the smaller screw-on entry hole (green) and stir them using a gear-driven agitator (red). This is more like a modern pressure cooker than an autoclave. From US Patent 1,426,920: Autoclave by Oliver Sleeper, August 22, 1922, courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
Who invented autoclaves?
Photo: Scientific autoclave: Inspecting a crystal grown in microgravity inside a cylindrical autoclave. This scientific experiment was carried out onboard the Space Shuttle in October 1995. Photo by courtesy of NASA Marshall Space Flight Center (NASA-MSFC).
- Ancient Greeks use boiling water to sterilize medical tools.
- 1679: French engineer Denis Papin (1647–1712) invents the
steam pressure cooker—an important step in the development of
- 1860s: French biologist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) helps to
confirm the germ theory of disease. He realizes that heating things
to kill germs can prevent diseases and extend the life of foodstuffs
(which leads him to the invention of pasteurization).
- 1880s: Pasteur's collaborator Charles Chamberland (1851–1908)
invents the modern autoclave.
How pressure cookers work
Want to cook your dinner in a fraction of the time? You could use
a microwave to zap it with energetic waves. But another popular
solution is to seal it in a pressure cooker: a kind of saucepan that
cooks things quicker by boiling them at a higher temperature than
usual. Although considered old-fashioned by some, pressure cookers are still a convenient and economical way to prepare
food. The basic concept—using pressure to cook an an elevated temperature—is the same as what happens
in an autoclave.
Photo: A pressure cooker in action. Notice the small valve on the top (just to the right of the central handle) through which steam escapes. Photo copyright © and courtesy of Simon Law 2005, published on Flickr
under a Creative Commons License.
We've already seen that high pressure raises the boiling point of water. Suppose we could somehow arrange things so that the air above our
saucepan was actually at a much higher pressure than usual. That
would make the water boil at a significantly hotter temperature,
which would make the potatoes cook more quickly.
This is the basic idea behind pressure cookers. A pressure cooker
is a big steel saucepan with a tight-fitting lid. The outer edge of
the lid has a thick circle of rubber called a gasket that fits
between the bottom of the lid and the top of the pan to make a really
When you fill the pan with water and place it on the
stove, the water heats up and some of its molecules escape to form
steam up above it. With a normal pan, the steam would just drift off
into your kitchen and disappear. But with a pressure cooker, the
gasket and lid stop the steam escaping so the pressure soon builds up.
Although the water inside the pan boils, the higher pressure means it boils at a higher
temperature than normal that cooks your food more quickly. A special
valve on the top of the lid allows a small amount of steam to escape,
keeping the pressure higher than normal but not so high that the
cooker explodes. If the pressure inside the pan builds up too much, the valve pops right out, rapidly lowering the pressure to a safe level again.
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