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All Steamed Up: Laboratory Autoclaves First Line of Defense Against Infections

The value proposition of laboratory autoclaves is expanding due to the modern lifestyles. People easily travel around the world today, unintentionally bringing a variety of microorganisms with them. At the same time, increasing use of antibiotics is creating more resilient bacteria that is difficult to kill. That explains the phenomenal growth in the number of laboratory autoclaves purchased globally. Steam sterilization of medical substances, items like linens, equipment and devices remains one of the top and most reliable methods of sterilization.


Autoclave Industry Grows by Leaps and Bounds


Zion Market Research recently published a report, "Steam Autoclaves Market by Product type (Table Top, Vertical, Horizontal, Floor Standing, High Pressure), by the application (Medical, Dental, Laboratory) for Healthcare Global Industry Perspective, Comprehensive Analysis, and Forecast 2017-2023." The report has a wealth of impressive statistics. For example, the global steam autoclave market is projected to experience significant continued growth of 7.84 percent between 2018-2023 for a total value of $2,857.3 million or almost $3 billion.


The U.S. is the dominant North America country for autoclave purchases. Multiple reasons are cited for the tremendous growth in autoclave sales.

  • Increasing use of reusable complex surgical instruments with tubes
  • Increasing number of infections
  • Need for management of biomedical wastes
  • Addition of more hospital departments that function as Central Sterile Supply units
  • Increasing government funding for laboratory autoclaves


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics provide further support for the growing use of laboratory autoclaves. On any single day, approximately 25 patients experience an infection related to healthcare. The national Health Care-Associated Infection Action Plan was designed to help a variety of healthcare facilities reduce their infection rates. The facilities include:


  • Acute-Care Hospitals
  • Ambulatory Surgical Centers
  • End-Stage Renal Disease Facilities
  • Long-Term Care Facilities


The HAI Action plan recommends using steam sterilization by autoclaving as one of the first defenses again infection associated with healthcare.


Breaking Down the Cells


The laboratory autoclave is also known as a steam sterilizer. It works by using high processed steam to destroy microbial life on anything deemed suitable for autoclave sterilization. The autoclave can be set for different temperatures and to run for different lengths of time in order to accommodate various materials and instruments. One of the fascinating facts about steam sterilization is that it is a process that has been in use for at least 150 years. Prior to the invention of the autoclave sterilizer by Charles Chamberland in 1879, open flame sterilization was used. The equipment used today is high-tech, reliable and designed to sterilize the items and substances that are available in modern healthcare.


One of the first defenses against infection is staying ahead of the microorganisms that cause infection. The sources of infection that Chamberland addressed are still relevant, but there are so many more sources today because nature continues to adapt. In addition, healthcare facilities are using a wider variety of instruments, solids and liquids, healthcare items and pharmaceuticals than at any time in history.


The laboratory autoclave kills micro-organisms through coagulation. Highly pressurized and extremely hot steam break down the proteins in cell walls and causing them to coagulate. When the proteins coagulate, they have experienced a chemical change to become a new substance, rendering the cells useless. The amount of microorganisms that remain after an autoclave is operated at a fixed temperature is determined by the amount of steamed heat applied. While it is probably unusual, mathematically speaking, to ever reach zero microorganisms, the laboratory autoclave that is working properly can reduce the chance of their being a surviving microorganism to one-in-a-million. The key is to set the appropriate temperature and sterilization time for the load placed in the chamber.


High Quality through Rigorous Testing


High-quality laboratory autoclaves go through rigorous testing and must be able to meet performance standards. Following is some general information.


  • The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) inspects every autoclave chamber in the U.S., tagging it with a nameplate that provides the National Boiler number if it passes hydrostatic testing.


  • High performing autoclaves produce high-quality steam which means the steam does not contain entrained liquid water spray.


  • Per 21 CFR 128(b), autoclaves must have steam pressure control valves. CFR is the acronym for the Code of Federal Regulations.


  • Each state has laws concerning the disposal of items like biological research material, syringes, needles, etc. The autoclave needs to be able to sterilize the specific type of allowable materials before the can be disposed of. For example, Massachusetts requires all infectious and non-infectious materials be deactivated by autoclave or chemical treatment before disposal. The state does not allow any sharp medical supplies to be disposed of directly as Municipal Solid Waste. Licensed contractors must pick the material up.


The true value proposition of laboratory autoclaves is that they destroy the microorganisms that are harmful to humans and the environment. It explains the tremendous growth in autoclave sales. 

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