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What is a CO2 Incubator?

CO2 incubator

CO2 incubators are sealed, climate-controlled boxes used in life science laboratories to grow biological cell cultures. They are required to maintain the same conditions as inside the human body.

  • 7.4 pH neutral
  • 98.6°F (37°C)
  • > 90% relative humidity

These three numbers create the optimal conditions for biological cell growth.

Why is CO2 needed in an incubator?

Humans are most comfortable at CO2 levels at or slightly above 400 ppm (0.04%) which raises the question, why would a CO2 incubator that is used to grow tissue cultures need CO2 levels of 5 - 10%? 

In order to culture cells under optimum conditions, the media they grow in needs to stay at neutral pH (around pH 7). The H2O in the cells can be turned into a carbonic acid (H2CO3) buffer by adding additional CO2. The combination of H2O and CO2 results in bicarbonate (HCO3-) and H2CO3 which keeps the pH neutral, and therefore has been found to affect the growth of biological cells the least. Here's a short video that explains the chemical reaction.

In other words, by adding additional CO2 at the right level you prevent the pH inside the cells from becoming either alkaline or acidic, which both inhibit cell growth.

Maintaining CO2 Levels

CO2 levels inside a CO2 incubator are measured with accurate optical nondispersive infra-red (NDIR) sensors. There are two concerns when using an NDIR CO2 sensor:

  1. In high-altitude environments, the sensor readings must be adjusted to the change in barometric pressure.
  2. The sensor be guarded against high humidity. Too much water in the air can result in condensation inside the CO2 sensor which will render the sensor inoperative.

Maintaining Humidity Levels

While a water pan is often used to improve humidity, it creates potential problems with contamination and irregular humidity levels as the door is opened and closed. For that reason, an atomizer may be used to boost the humidity level along with a %RH sensor to control the humidity level.


Risks of contamination inside a CO2 incubator are primarily around cross contamination from fungi, viruses and bacteria. This can be controlled by sterilization between samples. It is important however, that sterilization with heat or superheated water not come into direct contact with the CO2 sensor. For this reason, the CO2 sensor should be integrated into the incubator in such a way that it is not impacted by the sterilization cycle. This can be solved by

  • Gas sampling CO2 sensor (fixed or handheld) outside the incubator
  • CO2 sensor with heat and moisture-resistant stainless-steel hood

Limitations of CO2 Incubators

biological incubator

A growing field of study is the limitations of CO2 incubators as they relate to oxygen levels. Common sense would tell us that since living tissue like human cell cultures thrive in 20.9% oxygen-filled air, that this should be the desired oxygen level inside a cell incubator. Since ambient air is 20.9% oxygen, CO2 incubators need not be sealed from outside air. 

The problem is that different  living cell culture grow at different oxygen levels. For example, while lung alveolar cells are exposed to 20.9% oxygen, the oxygen level in arterial blood falls to 10.5-13%. Many organs function normally at oxygen levels ranging from 2-8%. Logically, exposing every cell culture to the same 20.9% oxygen level would create a different environment than what they were exposed to inside the body, and hence, would change cell growth results.

The need to create anaerobic conditions for cell cultures includes a wide variety of applications including growing organ tissue parts, cancer diagnostics, genomic therapy, and virus and bacterium research for industrial, pharmaceutical and agricultural science.

To respond to this challenge, instead of using CO2 incubators scientists use sealed glove boxes with tri-gas CO2/O2/N2 incubation. The oxygen concentration is controlled by nitrogen and measured indirectly by measuring oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Incubator CO2 Sensors

cell incubator co2 sensor

Maintaining a consistent level of CO2 in an incubator is critical. Not only is an accurate CO2 sensor required, but it must perform regardless of the temperature or humidity levels inside the device.

For example, the MicroSENS IR Incubator 0-20% CO2 Sensor has been optimized to measure 5% by volume of CO2 in cell incubators to manage ideal cell and tissue growth.

Unlike typical CO2 sensors, this sensor is designed to be resistant to heat and moisture. It can be permanently mounted inside the incubation chamber since it can withstand up to 190° C heat and steam sterilization. And because it can be calibrated in-place, it does not need to be returned to the factory for calibration. This minimizes down time between cell culture growth cycles.

Other CO2 Sensor Options

co2 sensor for bio incubator

When it is not cost-efficient to retrofit an old incubator with a dedicated CO2 Incubator sensor, other options are available.

GasLab has worked with several labs to integrate products like our 20% range CO2 sensor development kits and GasLab software on a laptop to continuously sample the atmosphere inside an incubator. The gas inside the incubator is routed through a flexible rubber tube  between the door gaskets, run through a water trap to remove excess moisture, then pulled into the sensor using a micro-pump.

While not a built-in solution, it can easily be implemented and moved between several incubators to test the CO2 level from an exterior CO2 tank supply.


Photos by Mateus Figueiredo via CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons, Shinryuu public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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