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Different extraction processes, new products, and new equipment combine to create the perfect storm of better, safer extractions.
Extraction technology is one of the faster changing parts of the cannabis science business. More concentrates and products are coming out all the time. But there is always a search, more of a scientific yearning, for a better, cheaper, or safer process than the current methods.
It’s all about what you want to extract, then essentially working backward from there. There are new processes being invented all the time, and ideas generated by other industries to review and incorporate, as extractions and the products made from extractions becomes more popular.
It’s time for a reboot about what extraction means, where it’s being used, and why it’s not the chemist’s mystery that some believe it to be.
This “Tech Innovations” column will quote top thought leaders in extraction developments and find out what’s being developed now, what’s coming next, and how extractions are better and safer than ever before.
Cannabis extraction should not be viewed as a “black art,” but a quantifiable scientific process, according to Markus Roggen, president and chief science officer of Delic Labs, who describes himself as just the chemist who counts molecules and not the guy who does the medical studies.
“An artist says that they will always make a masterpiece because it cannot be ignored and cannot be used as a consumer packaged good,” he said. “The businesspeople at Coca Cola know exactly how much it will cost them to make their product. It should not be a surprise. And so therefore, optimization is important.”
Roggen is now employing machine learning (1) to the extraction process. He explained why he is doing that, and how he is getting there. “Extraction has the goal of removing the compounds of interest, such as cannabinoids, terpenes, and maybe other parts, from the whole plant matrix, and separating them from all of the unwanted compounds like waxes and sugars.”
The cannabis plant is rich in compounds, he said, and different extraction processes had to be developed for them—solvent, solventless, CO2, and other new and familiar methods (2). How extraction usually works is that the extraction operator would step up to one machine, look at the machine, look at the cannabis they have, and then from experience or from a more structured optimization process, would dial into the machine the extraction process until he got what he wanted. “That’s how we normally did it,” he said.
But there are a limited number of experiments to do in finding the right optimization process just because of the time of day, the number of materials, the cost, and the operating hours. “So, you might be doing two experiments to maybe 20 experiments to find the right setting for you,” said Roggen.
The operator must consider that there are cannabinoids, terpenes, sugar, waxes, water content, then different strains of cultivars, and different sizes and different instruments, but also different concentrate products to be made, he added. “We might want something solid, or powder or edible,” he said. “We might want to have a very high terpene oil for one product, and we want to have just cannabinoids for another product. So now if we want to optimize for all these various factors and outcomes, it becomes impossible to do experiments for it, because we have to do too many experiments to figure that out. That was our problem and why we considered machine learning.”
The intended goal of machine learning is to understand the process, Roggen explained. “That’s so that the operator makes the right product in the most efficient way, but also so that the business side of the company understands all the costs, is able to reduce the costs as much as possible and produce the most reliable and consistent product they can,” he said.
Extraction is an old technique for the food processing industry (3). It appears that there should be no reason to re-invent the process for the cannabis industry. But there are many variables with cannabis—the most difficult being that cannabis is illegal—so the mechanical and agricultural techniques that have been researched for decades for other food products don’t exist for cannabis, Roggen explained. “We have a lot to catch up to. Cannabis by itself is a very complex plant. And we are interested in such a variety of compounds that a classic way of separation or extraction that you might see in the perfume industry doesn’t work anymore,” he said.
Enter the beginning of machine learning. “With cannabis, we don’t have a big data project. We don’t have enough data. All machine learning is based on the idea that we take the existing data we can find, develop a basic understanding of how extraction works based on the data, and obviously some scientific principles, and then use a machine learning algorithm that is constantly improving,” he said. “So, it takes the existing data, makes a best guess about the process, then takes the learnings from that experiment to the next experiment into improving its algorithm. So, if we compare our current machine learning to an existing operator, we can improve the operations by 50% easily, then maybe 20% the next time.”
Roggen is also working on extractions with psilocybin (4) since the Canadian government regulations allows research licenses for psilocybin and a host of other psychedelic compounds for his lab in Vancouver. “So right now, we have LSD, MDMA DMT, Ibogaine, 5-MeO-DMT, and all of those compounds,” he said. “The first question we focus on is analytics, because if you get your hands on psychedelic mushroom, there’s a little bit of psilocybin in there, and a lot of psilocin, which is almost twice as potent as psilocybin. Having a lot of psilocin in a mushroom is good. The problem is that it’s very unstable and degrades and oxidizes very quickly. So, you actually want your mushroom with a lot of psilocybin. That’s the most stable form and then you only have to control the transformation to psilocin when you make your tea or when you ingest it.”
In a testing laboratory during the sample preparation method, operators are degrading the mushroom, so they’re changing the result while they’re testing it. “The test methods are not yet well developed. That is our main focus right now—to develop better test methods to be able to establish the right concentration in the mushroom and not the artifact that we see after we destroy the mushroom.”
Nick Tanem, the owner and operator of Essential Extracts, a public speaker and activist, said he is the guy who coined the word “solventless” (5). “I reserve the term solventless for mechanical separations, but it’s actually not an extraction,” he said. “Whereas butane, ethanol, or CO2 would be used in extractions, where you’re actually extruding the oil from within the trichome head.”
Solventless is more of a mechanical separation rather than an extraction, he said, meaning that an operator is mechanically separating the trichome head from the plant material. “Once we are talking about rosin, we are talking about extruding those oils via mechanical means without the use of any chemical solvents,” said Tanem.
Most, if not all, of today’s forms of extractions going for different consistencies and new end products can be done by mechanical means, Tanem explained. “It’s for some of the newest products on the market in the last two to five years, like live rosin cartridges, because we’ve been able to mechanically separate this oil without the use of any chemical solvents and get it into a vaporizer or cartridge form,” he said.
With states like Pennsylvania outlawing any additions or subtractions to a vaporizable form, such as added botanical terpenes or even added cannabis-derived terpenes back into a formula, live rosin cartridges are becoming even more popular. “I’m getting a lot more work,” he said. “That’s where a lot of the industry is going, understanding that we’re able to now recreate these consistencies and products without the use of chemical solvents.”
Tanem shared that his clients are constantly asking about the cartridge technique and how to get the rosin form into the right viscosity that’s usable in the vaporizable form for either the cartridge or any other the hardware that’s out there on the market. “A lot of my clients are also asking about specifics on the freeze dryers,” said Tanem (6). “We brought freeze dryers in about 2015 from the freeze-dried fruit world into the cannabis world.”
The freeze dryer allows an operator to mitigate the chance for microbial contamination. “When we’re talking about mechanical separations, we’re using water. When we use water combined with plant material, there’s the chance for more microbial growth,” he said.
With a freeze dryer, an operator can remove 100% of the plant matter, and 100% of the water. There is no chance for mold microbial growth at that point. “So that’s a really, really big step in the scaling up or the industrializing of our industry and creating safer products,” he added.
Tanem said that the whole solventless process is huge. “In the beginning, it didn’t get as much traction as I thought it would. And at this point, you know, almost 10 years later, after coining that term, it’s a huge part of the industry,” he said. “People are asking about scaling up that process.”
That’s what Tanem has been focusing on: Scaling up the processes, going bigger, trying to compete with the big money coming in. “But doing that while retaining our craft, the knowledge and skill set that we’ve learned over the last couple of decades here in this space,” he added.
Darwin Millard is a mechanical engineer by training who specializes in mechanical and solvent-based extraction methodologies for isolating the various phenolic secondary metabolites from botanicals. “It was like, as a mechanical engineer, I could build and design slurry pumps for the fracking industry, or I could jump headfirst into Colorado’s fledgling medical cannabis program at the time. So, I did that. And I wouldn’t change anything for the world,” he said.
Millard is the chief science officer for Final Bell, based in Canada, and Final Bell is the Canadian arm of a multinational operator that has several larger copacking and coprocessing facilities that are intended to provide those services for the legal cannabis marketplace. In his role as chief science officer, he is helping the company with research and development into new and labor and cost saving process improvements and systems.
Final Bell does solventless extractions in bulk, as well as big cartridge filling and co-packing for various clients. With a broadening product range, and an equipment and process system evolution underway, what is being done with extractions today? “It more or less depends on what your end product is,” Millard said.
Millard said it’s important to ask yourself these questions: What are you trying to make? Are you trying to compete in the highly competitive concentrates and extracts game, where it’s all about hype? Do you have the right strains? Or are you just trying to make a bulk ingredient that you are going to sell at the cheapest price possible to a larger copacker or coprocessor who is making products for other people? Or are you going to try to make some small batch artisanal terpenes run?
“If you don’t know what you’re trying to extract, or why you’re trying to extract it, then you could theoretically make anything with anything,” he said. “And there are other implications you might want to take into consideration when looking at these various different types of extraction systems that are out there.”
Extraction is not a dark science because people have been extracting various analytes of interest from complicated botanical mixtures for a very long time, Millard explained. “It’s almost unimaginable to think about a plant as something that we’ve kind of coevolved with for so long and know so little about, in comparison to if we were to find an unknown plant, flower, or frog species or insect or something in the Amazon,” Millard said. “But with cannabis, it’s almost like we’ve just discovered some new life form at the bottom of the ocean.”
The issue of heavy metals and other contaminants in extracted products seems to be under control for now, but there is still a significant issue with them in the black market. “The cannabis plant is a very strong phytoremediator of heavy metals and other elemental impurities,” he said (7). “So, depending on where and how you are growing it, there could certainly be opportunities for elemental impurity contamination.”
Contaminants that are of concern to anyone growing an agriculture product include pharmaceuticals and personal care products, hormones, steroids, alkyl-phenols, flame retardants and pesticides. They can get pulled up into a crop as a crop grows, and end up in the food chain even after processing. That’s where standards development organizations such as the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM ) International and their technical committee, called D37 on Cannabis (9) comes in, trying to create standards that will help promote product quality and ensure consumer and environmental health and safety.
There are many forms and many methods of cannabis extraction being used today. But these machine processes need more controls, and more controllable features, to reproduce the same concentrate every time. That’s one of the goals of a medical cannabis business—to make formulations that are consistent and can be counted on by the patient. But beyond the medical market, general consumers in adult use states have an expectation that their products will be safe and consistent as well.
What is left to explore today is operator education of the extraction process, and the bringing together of more of the brain power of engineers and extractions operators to answer common problems or explore new concepts. When these minds meet, the future of cannabis extractions will surely be all the stronger.
David Hodes has written for many cannabis publications, and organized or moderated sessions at national and international cannabis trade shows. He was voted the 2018 Journalist of the Year by Americans for Safe Access, the world’s largest medical cannabis advocacy organization.
D. Hodes, Cannabis Science and Technology® Vol. 5 (4), 26-28 (2022).