Autoclaves provide a physical method for disinfection and sterilization. They work with a combination of steam, pressure and time. Autoclaves operate at high temperature and pressure in order to kill microorganisms and spores.
They are used to decontaminate certain biological waste and sterilize media, instruments and lab ware. Regulated medical waste that might contain bacteria, viruses and other biological material are recommended to be inactivated by autoclaving before disposal.
What is the temperature used for autoclave?
The standard temperature for an autoclave is 121 degrees Celsius. To get an idea of how hot this is, consider that corresponds to approximately 250 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, it is hotter than boiling water. The reason for this is that simply bringing something up to the temperature of boiling water, 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit), is not sufficient to sterilize it because bacterial spores can survive this temperature. In contrast, 121 degrees Celsius is almost always sufficient for sterilization.
Why do we use an autoclave at 121°C?
The reason for 121°C and not 120°C is due to how autoclaves work and how they were developed. They sterilize with saturated steam under pressure. Historically, we measure the pressure generated by the steam. Which leads directly to the answer.
Steam power was the basis of industrial process in the 19th century, and to use it safely required monitoring and controlling boiler pressure. Boiler explosions were not uncommon in the early days of steam power. The Bourdon pressure gauge was invented in 1849 and was a robust technology that yielded reliable and accurate measurement of steam pressure.
When Chamberland invented the autoclave in 1879 from Papain’s earlier pressure cooker, it relied exclusively on pressure measurement for control. Not until 1933 were autoclaves produced that monitored temperature at the drain line to confirm that air was exhausted and the steam was truly saturated.
Study of steam engines was the basis for the development of thermodynamics and the kinetic molecular theory of gasses. Although steam is far from an ideal gas, there is a predictable relationship between temperature and pressure in saturated steam as well as well established properties of heat transfer. These can be found on standard engineering steam tables.
Saturated steam is very efficient in transferring heat. This is why scald injuries are so severe compared to simple burns at the same temperatures. It is also how saturated steam kills even heat resistant microorganisms in an autoclave.
One earth atmosphere of pressure at sea level is defined as 14.69 pounds per square inch (psi), though in reality it varies a little bit due to temperature and weather. Because of this variation and because humans using Arabic numerals, arithmetic, and algebra like integer units in 5’s; engineers often think of 1 atmosphere of pressure as 15 psi. This amount of saturated steam pressure is well within the capacities of typical steam boilers. This nice round of 15 psi saturated steam will kill even highly resistant bacterial endospores in about 15 minutes. A very reasonable time frame, and a nice mnemonic: 15 psi for 15 minutes.
The temperature of that 15 psi of saturated steam? 121°C.
And that is why we use a very unusual 121°C for typical autoclaving. It’s because we are really using a rounded one earth atmosphere of steam pressure. And we did so without concern for direct temperature measurement for the first 50 years of autoclave use. In many ways the temperature of the autoclave was of secondary importance.