Industrial autoclaves are pressure vessels used to process parts and materials which require exposure to elevated pressure and temperature. The manufacture of high-performance components from advanced composites often requires autoclave processing.
Industrial autoclave Principle of operation
An autoclave applies both heat and pressure to the workload placed inside of it. Typically, there are two classes of autoclave. Those pressurized with steam process workloads which can withstand exposure to water, while circulating heated gas provides greater flexibility and control of the heating atmosphere.
Processing by autoclave is far more costly than oven heating and is therefore generally used only when isostatic pressure must be applied to a workload of comparatively complex shape. For smaller flat parts, heated presses offer much shorter cycle times. In other applications, the pressure is not required by the process but is integral with the use of steam, since steam temperature is directly related to steam pressure. Rubber vulcanizing exemplifies this category of autoclaving.
For exceptional requirements, such as the curing of ablative composite rocket engine nozzles and missile nosecones, a hydroclave can be used, but this entails extremely high equipment costs and elevated risks in operation. The hydroclave is pressurized with water; the pressure keeps the water in liquid phase despite the high temperature.
The key component of the industrial autoclave is the fast-opening door; this is also the critical component in cost of autoclave construction. On one hand, the operator must be able to open and close the door quickly and easily; on the other, the door must satisfy stringent safety requirements. Such is the quality of autoclave door design that the US experiences as few as an estimated five or six autoclave failures annually.
Autoclave design is driven by various safety standards, foremost among which is the ASME Pressure Vessel Code. While most nations use the ASME code, some have developed their own. The CE standard in Europe applies to vessels as well as to electrical controls, and China requires that pressure vessels comply with their domestic code. All codes specify conservative requirements intended to maximize safety. Local governments may also impose licensing requirements related to autoclave operation.