The Extraction Evolution

Columns - Tomorrow in Cannabis

As you consider the rapidly growing extraction market, your initial decisions will impact your entire cultivation and extraction workflow.

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April 1, 2016

Illustration: Marina Vorontsova

Only 10 percent of the cannabis produced in the future will be sold as raw product in the form of dried buds, as I detailed in my previous two columns. The other 90 percent will be processed and extracted. (Concentrated forms of cannabis already represent 20 percent to 60 percent of dispensary sales in various states.) The advantages of this are many:

  • Reduced space allocated for drying means reduced construction costs.
  • Minimal product drying when drying only 10 percent of the crop.
  • That 10 percent is removed ripe or mature, and the other 90 percent is allowed to mature over the next two weeks.
  • Allowing the 90 percent to further mature increases the levels of desirable cannabinoids and terpenoids by as much as 25 percent. This translates into considerable savings, since it enables you to eliminate one crop rotation per year while producing the same amount of desirable compounds (THC, CBD, terpenoids, etc.).
  • The remaining 90 percent can then be harvested. Any plant material that does not have desirable compounds, or trichomes, on the surface can be separated and discarded. The compound-rich product then can be frozen immediately to subzero temperatures, and processed or extracted accordingly.
  • Preparing product for extraction minimizes the trimming process since only 10 percent is meticulously hand-trimmed. The remaining ripened-up 90 percent is merely de-leafed of primary and secondary leaves, and all stems and branch material, saving potentially millions of dollars in trimming and labor costs.

Every step of cultivation — from harvesting and processing to extraction — must be performed at the height of efficiency without, in any way, compromising quality. This efficiency also leads to a low cost of production, which is essential in the newly emerging competitive cannabis market. That said, your method of cultivation dictates how efficient your process is. The initial decisions you make will ultimately dictate your entire cultivation and extraction workflow.

Determining The Most Valuable Final Compound, Form of Extract or Concentrate to Produce

For starters, there is no point in making a product nobody wants and that you cannot sell. Do your homework and only produce products customers want and value. Many forms of extracts and concentrates are being consumed now, with even more to come. Here is an explanation of some of the many forms, their manufacture process and method of consumption.

1. Sieved or sifted resin glands or trichome heads. Some call this kief. It is manufactured by agitating dry or frozen plant material over specially designed screens to separate resin gland heads into specific sizes. By doing so, the most desirable-sized resin gland head can be isolated, and immature glands, gland stalks and other undesirable plant material can be eliminated. When pressed, these separated resin glands become what is commonly referred to as hashish. This concentrate is smoked or vaporized.

2. The principle above applies to “ice water hash” or “bubble hash” as well, except that the plant material is allowed to separate through the screens while submerged in very cold water — hence the name, in reference to its purity and, at that level of purity, its ability to bubble when heat is applied. This also is smoked or vaporized.

3. Rosin, a relatively new phenomenon, involves basically squeezing cannabis buds or separated resin glands between a heated metal surface and a non-heated metal surface at specific pressures and temperatures that force the cannabinoids and essential oils out of the buds so they can be collected. This extracted concentrate is smoked or vaporized as well.

4. With ethanol extraction, a method of maceration is performed whereupon the cannabis is allowed to soak or be exposed to ethanol alcohol for a given period of time, so as to extract the desirable compounds — such as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), and any and all other valuable cannabinoids or terpenoids — without extracting undesirable compounds such as fats, waxes or chlorophyll, which make the extract darker in color and add unpleasant tastes when consumed. Some of these undesirable compounds can be removed further by a process called winterization.

5. Hydrocarbon extraction

is, in many ways, similar to the ethanol-extraction process except the cannabis is macerated in a column. The solvent, usually butane or propane, or a combination of both, is then forced or drawn through the column by utilization of positive or negative pressures. The solvent soaks the cannabis and dissolves the resin glands or trichomes, and extracts available cannabinoids and terpenoids.

After extraction, the solvent is recovered for re-use. The apparatus that perform this function are called "closed-loop systems." After solvent recovery, the remaining extract is further processed to remove any remaining solvent. The extract can then be manufactured into many products, depending on the desired final form. Variations exist that are dependent on the initial material used. For example, fresh, frozen, undried plant material extraction will yield a different composition than one extracted utilizing dry plant material. Many factors determine the composition of the final product. The final product is sold in many forms with many names — budder, shatter and wax, to name a few. This product is typically consumed using a heated piece of titanium or quartz glass, and vaporized in purpose-built vape pens.

6. The CO2, supercritical or subcritical extraction method is preferred by many because it does not utilize a flammable solvent, but rather liquid CO2. CO2 gas is subjected to elevated pressures to transition to a fluid then circulated through the cannabis, which is contained in high-pressure vessels. After the initial extraction occurs, the resulting extract, containing desirable compounds such as THC or CBD, etc., usually is further refined to eliminate any undesirable compounds via winterization, filtration and distillation. This extract is consumed using vape pens or in edibles.

A Rapid Evolution

The extraction industry is evolving very rapidly. Extractors are refining methods by investigating existing processes and apparatus used by the flavor and fragrance industries. Some of these processes employ the use of technical equipment, such as hyperbaric chambers and ultrasonic distillation, among many others, as well as scaling up existing equipment to increase the extractor capacity, allowing for larger amounts to be extracted, thus lowering the production cost.

In addition to utilizing extracts for basic forms of consumption, extracts also are rapidly being further refined and separated, or fractionated and isolated, into pure pharmaceutical-grade compounds, such as THC and THCA, CBD and CBDA, and CBN, as well as a plethora of various terpenoids and other cannabinoids. In the future, these super-refined products will be sold to universities, research laboratories, pharmaceutical manufacturers and edible products companies.

The use and application of these super refinements are in their infancy, and one can only speculate the many ways in which these compounds will be employed in the future. But in order to figure out and research the compounds, they will need to be available from well-established and reputable manufacturers who have been in existence for a given period of time and have demonstrated a high degree of ethics and professionalism.

Micro encapsulated cannabinoids and terpenoids. Such formulations will increase significantly in popularity in the near future.
Photo: Kenneth Morrow

Opportunities Abound

So you can see, many opportunities exist to produce current products and others that have yet to be conceived. This leads to formulation opportunities as well, and by that I mean the formulation of separated compounds into desirable, salable forms. Many researchers will require these compounds in pure form. Yet others will require formulated mixtures of different compounds. One client may request a mixture of THCA and CBDA, combined in a 1:1 ratio, while another client may order THC and CBD combined in a different ratio. Some clients will request separated or fractionated terpenoids, specifically blended and formulated to suit their desired application.

The cannabis plant contains literally hundreds of compounds, many of which researchers have been forbidden to analyze or study. These compounds could hold the key to many beneficial products. In the end, many of the extracts produced will end up consumed in various forms as preventatives or, for lack of a better term, as "wellness products" — products that don't have a euphoric effect and that contribute in multiple ways to some health benefit or condition.

These products probably will not state they are cannabis-derived or mention cannabis on the packaging. They will be sold at all major retailers and will be consumed by people who neither know nor care that they contain cannabis. All the consumer will know is that the product works and makes them feel better.

But it all begins with proper cultivation practices, because great cannabis makes great concentrates or extracts, which in turn produces quality finished products.

Kenneth Morrow is an author and writer who has been covering cannabis-related subjects for more than 20 years. He is the owner of Trichome Technologies, a cannabis research and development company. Morrow also is an award-winning grower and breeder. He has made contributions to many of today's extraction methodologies and holds multiple patents in the field. He currently specializes in product formulation and consults on all cannabis-related subjects. Find him on Instagram (TrichomeTechnologies) or Facebook (Trichome Technologies).