An autoclave is, perhaps, one of the most important devices in the medical field. It heats solutions above their boiling point to sterilize medical or laboratory instruments. The autoclave is also used in industry to “cure” some products during the manufacturing process.
There are several types of autoclaves. One of the simplest looks a great deal like a pressure cooker. It is a large pot with a gauge on top and bolts that fasten the top to the pot. The idea behind this is that water inside a pressurized container can be heated above the boiling point. It will only reach 212°F (100°C) in an open container. However, in a pressurized autoclave, the water will reach much higher temperatures.
Most doctor’s offices have a small autoclave in their labs, and these are used to sterilize small batches of instruments. This type is usually on a cart and is similar in size to a microwave oven. It can also be wheeled around to where it is needed.
Hospitals use large autoclaves that look similar to a dishwasher. This machine can process large numbers of surgical instruments in one cycle, keeping up with the constant demand from the operating rooms and emergency department. An autoclave should ideally be a one-touch instrument. That is, the technician should be able to load the machine, press a button to begin the cycle, and the machine does the rest. The technician should not have to monitor the unit constantly for temperature or to begin or end a cycle.
The autoclave was invented in 1879 by Charles Chamberland. The benefits of sterile surgery were starting to catch on and medical professionals needed a more reliable way to sterilize their instruments besides heating them in the fire. The benefits of the machine were quickly evident, and it became an indispensable part of every medical office and hospital. The autoclave is not quite as common, with the introduction of single-use needles and other instruments, but it is still a necessary part of any medical or lab setting.