Part II of this series reviews the history of vape products, producing cannabis vapes, the myriad of extract types, and how temperature and hardware impact the user experience.
Since 2019’s “vape crisis,” cannabis and nicotine vapes have been under a roller-coaster of scrutiny—with good reason. In the second part of this two part series, we define the various categories of vapor products and how they are made, review the importance of temperature control, and predictions for the future of vapor products and technology.
Since 2019’s “vape crisis,” cannabis and nicotine vapes have been under a roller-coaster of scrutiny—with good reason. This is part II of a two part series, where we review the history of vape products, producing cannabis vapes, the myriad of extract types, and how temperature and hardware impact the user experience.
The long and unusual history of vapes began in the 1930s and has continued to this day. Innovation in the inhalables space has provided global consumers with a cornucopia of devices, products, and flavors in a number of different herbal and synthetic categories. A majority of liquids that are being vaped are nicotine and cannabis. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that e-cigarettes and vaporizers became regulated under the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and equivalent agencies throughout the world. Because of this, the e-cigarette and vaping industry has been on a roller-coaster ride. At present day, the e-cigarette or vapor category is continuing to undergo great scrutiny as a result of unsafe products being sold to adults and minors. These unsafe products have caused serious illness and death among consumers. It is more important than ever to ensure that manufacturers are held accountable for the production of safe consumer goods. In this article, production methods, cannabis extract nomenclature, vaping temperature, and vape hardware will be reviewed as integral components of safe and effective vape manufacturing.
There are four main extraction methods that are utilized in the cannabis industry. Each extraction method has its strengths and weaknesses depending on cost, regulations, safety, versatility, and desired end product. In the US, 20% of cannabis products sold at retail are in the vape category (1).
Within the vape market, a majority of vapes are produced using distillate. CO2 extracts and live resin extracts make up most of the remaining market share. Distillate is mainly produced using thin-film or wiped film evaporation methods, which result in cannabinoid concentrations of well over 80-90%. The goal of distillation and evaporation is to concentrate and purify an extract to produce these highly refined and purified distillates. Because of this, the ideal extraction method is ethanol extraction to produce high yield, low cost volume of cannabis extract to then run through distillate production at scale. Distillate is incredibly economical to produce at scale, which offers manufacturers a low-cost, high-tetrahydrocannainol (THC) base ingredient for vapor products. These affordable vapes, produced with low-cost distillate and often with non-cannabis derived flavorings are popular among consumers because of the affordability. These products are also perceived as “bang for your buck” because of the THC concentration, often exceeding 80% THC. Hydrocarbon extraction is often utilized for the extraction of cannabis derived terpenes, which are then used with distillate to produce a more flavorful end product. While many industry members know that distillate is not a good source for an optimal cannabis experience, it is cheap and has perceived value by consumers so it continues to maintain its position as the top cannabis vape product on the market.
Despite its market position, distillate products are being challenged as consumers become more educated and empowered in their search for a favorite cannabis product. Extracts with full-spectrum cannabinoid profiles offer a richer, more effective, and balanced experience along with the flavor profile of the cannabis it came from. These extraction methods are the best options for producing highly flavorful and full-spectrum vapor products. CO2 extraction offers the most versatility and selectivity among the extraction methods because the temperature and pressure can be manipulated to more efficiently extract different fractions of desired compounds. For example, one can extract a rich and consistent terpene profile and cannabinoid profile simultaneously or separately using different parameters. At one time, CO2 extraction was the main method of extraction for the production of vapor cartridges. However, CO2 extraction is much higher in cost and lower in efficiency than ethanol extraction. This results in higher cost vapor products, which has become a consistent challenge in a market that is continuing to bottom out in prices (2). “Solventless” extraction is a category that has grown exponentially over the past two years. Methods in this category include rosin pressing and ice water hash. These physical separation methods are low in efficiency, but yield a highly desirable end product and consumers are willing to buy for the premium price as demonstrated in Figure 2.
Due to the nature of the method, rosin pressing must be done with a fine tuned method and high grade starting material to be able to produce an extract that will be flavorful, potent, and function in a vapor cartridge. If the extract is too thick or thin, the cartridge will not function or will leak. Temperature control and vape cartridge hardware have evolved to be able to support a wider range of extract types or to best function with very specific extract types, including rosin.
Vapor cartridges have a number of customizable features including:
•Material of the cartridge body
•Material of the cartridge wick
•Electrical current tolerance
Each of these features affects the user experience and performance of the product. The most notable components are the materials used in the hardware, the electrical current range, and the hole size. The materials used to produce the hardware dramatically impacts the experience of the flavor as well as the safety of the product. It is increasingly important for consumers to be looking for hardware that will not leach heavy metals or toxic materials into the vapor stream, which will end up in the consumer’s lungs. Findings have been published demonstrating that vapor from cannabis cartridges contained small amounts of chromium, copper, nickel, lead, manganese, and tin (3). Vapor hardware manufacturers have transitioned to more chemical resistant materials including ceramic to mitigate these risks.
Electrical potential range, usually measured in Volts, directly affects the temperature at which the extract is vaporized. The temperature of vaporization is important to ensure the vapor isn’t too hot when entering the lungs. If the vapor is too hot, this can cause lung irritation. The temperature will also affect the compounds that are being vaporized. At too high a temperature, the compounds can convert into derivatives and result in different compounds entering the bloodstream than desired. There are also potential risks to consuming these derivatives as some compounds, such as terpenes, will convert into harmful toxicants like Benzene when heated over 400°C. Some hardware manufacturers of vapor cartridges and devices have lowered the operating temperature and have also given the consumer more control over temperature settings with variable temperature controls. Lastly, temperature will affect the user’s experience of the flavor. At too high of a temperature, the delicate flavor components will burn and leave the consumer with a harsh and unpleasant taste. While manufacturers and consumers are transitioning to lower temperature vaping, the vapor cloud naturally decreases in volume with lower temperatures. So, manufacturers are combating this by increasing the size of aperture within the cartridges. This will allow for more extract to be exposed to the wicking system and ultimately create more vapor per draw even at lower temperatures, which is what consumers are asking for.
In summary, the human lungs are extremely vulnerable, so pay attention to where your product is coming from. Inhalation is the fastest way to experience cannabis and often the most enjoyable because of the incredible benefits of the entourage effect. However, do the due diligence to vet and only consume products from trusted companies. Extraction method, cartridge hardware, and product testing should all play a factor in selecting the ideal cannabis product for you.
Lo Friesen is the founder, CEO, and Chief Extractor of Heylo. With a background in chemistry and clinical research, Lo was inspired to explore cannabis as a medicine and to enter the emerging industry. She joined Eden Labs, a leading CO2 extraction equipment manufacturer to support and expand a Research and Development department. There she managed the development of their latest and greatest CO2 extraction system. In 2017, after working with Eden Labs and another cannabis processor, Lo launched Heylo with a mission to help people get more out of life with cannabis.
L. Friesen, Cannabis Science and Technology® Vol. 5(5), 14-16 (2022).