Autoclaves are a staple of medical waste disposal. Medical professionals and waste disposal professionals use the autoclaving process to sanitize everything from sharps, to surgical equipment, to general hazardous or infectious waste. They are a crucial part of any medical or laboratory setting, but what is an autoclave?
Putting it simply, an autoclave is a machine that pumps in steam at a high temperature into a highly pressurized and sealed container to sanitize the material placed in it. Essentially, it’s a powered up pressure cooker.
The Two Autoclave Processes
While the basic process, steam at a high temperature and pressure, remains the same across autoclaves, there are two different methods used to achieve the final sanitary result.
Gravity Displacement Autoclaves
Gravity displacement autoclaves use the simpler of the two processes. To start, the machine pumps steam into the chamber. Once there, heavier steam pushes the air in the chamber out through the release valves on the machine. The steam then remains in the chamber, sterilizing the contents.
Gravity autoclaves are best suited for waste materials and tools that are solid items. Surgical tools, laboratory items, and regulated medical waste all fall into this category. However, gravity autoclaves possess limitations when it comes to more porous, larger, or textile products.
Pre-vacuum autoclaves still use steam and high pressure, but the way they create the pressure differs from gravity displacement autoclaves. Instead of using the steam to displace the air inside the chamber, a pump vacuums the air out of the chamber before the steam goes in.
This method works particularly well for porous and large equipment, as well as medical textiles and wrapped surgical kits. While this type of autoclave is more versatile, they are typically more expensive. They also require more maintenance than their gravity displacement counterparts.
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