Cannabis Extraction: 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions (and Our Answers)
by Jim Moore, vice president of new product development at Prospiant
Cannabis and hemp plants contain essential oil. But specialized equipment and processes are needed to extract cannabinoids that can be utilized to manufacture increasingly popular infused products such as concentrates, edibles, and topicals.
Extraction separates oils and waxes from botanical plant materials. This can be accomplished mechanically or through solvent-based methods with CO2, ethanol, or butane/propane:
- Mechanical extraction methods don’t require special equipment, but can require more labor, time, and manual processes to extract the oil. This category includes ice water hash, rosin presses, and dry sieve (for kief).
- Solvent-based extraction processes require specialized equipment that utilize a solvent to extract the oil. Common solvents are CO2, ethanol, butane, or propane.
There’s not one right answer; each cannabis extraction business has unique operating conditions and requirements. So operators, regardless of their experience and skill level or the size of their existing or planned organization, must ask a lot of questions. That’s the best way to discover the right information about equipment and processes that can enable them to achieve their operational and business objectives.
And it’s why I’m sharing the following answers to ten of the most frequently asked questions we get about cannabis extraction.
1) What cannabinoid extraction equipment do I need?
The answer depends on what cannabinoid products you intend to produce. Your first step is to base your decision on market research into what cannabis or hemp products will sell in today’s marketplace. Your choices include:
- Dabbing: potent oil or wax with high concentrations of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) that can be smoked or vaped.
- Distillates: pure THC and cannabidiol (CBD) that can be used to make a wide variety of oils, edibles, tinctures, pills, capsules, and suppositories.
- Edible oils: enable cannabinoids used in baked goods, gummies, chocolate bars, and other edible products to be more readily absorbed and digested.
- Infused products: range from food and beverages to makeup and skin care products.
- Live resin: a frozen concentrate (saps, sugars, jellies, butters, or solids) that captures the flavors and aromas of the cannabis plant.
- Terpenes: aromatic oils that give cannabis varieties their distinctive flavors and may add unique medicinal properties.
- Vape pens: cannabis-infused liquid or oil that’s heated to become a vapor the user inhales.
The next step: discuss your plans with a proven extraction equipment manufacturer whose engineers and specialists will share their know-how and work alongside you to identify solutions that are right for your business.
The truth is that extraction can be accomplished with a wide range of processes and equipment. Only a partner with deep expertise can help you select the equipment that can enable you to get high-quality products to market efficiently and profitably.
2) What are the pros and cons of each cannabis extraction process?
Ethanol extraction offers higher throughput compared to CO2 and hydrocarbon systems; it’s perfect for making distillates and isolates at scale. The method removes terpenes, which add flavor and aroma to the extract. However, many producers introduce terpenes back into their ethanol-extracted oil after distillation. It can be hazardous because ethanol is flammable. Processing with it requires a C1D2 control area.
CO2 extraction has a lower throughput than ethanol but utilizes an inert gas for processing, as opposed to a liquid solvent or explosive gas. The carbon dioxide allows the processor to capture terpenes prior to extraction for later use. CO2 raw extract requires a fair amount of post-processing to remove lipids, fats and waxes, but this can be repurposed into topical ointments. The gas does operate off at high pressures and varying temperatures, but without volatile compounds. As such, it does not require a control zone.
Butane/propane extraction also has a lower throughput than ethanol but enables the processor to capture all major terpenes and cannabinoids in one operation. A C1D1 control zone for explosive gases is required. The method is best for concentrates such as dabs, sauce, shatter and diamonds, which are gaining popularity with consumers.
3) What are the differences between processing cannabis and hemp?
Cannabis and hemp require processing with equipment designed to achieve different efficiencies. Cannabinoids yielded from cannabis are generally much higher than those of hemp, which contains less oleoresin than cannabis. This means that you need much more biomass or hemp plant material to glean out similar amounts of oil.
4) Why is the mill size of cannabis biomass important?
Mill size is extremely important because powdery material can contaminate your tincture and unbalance your centrifuge unit. A mill size that is too large will reduce your extraction efficiencies. At Prospiant, we recommend a mill size of one eighth to one quarter inch.
5) What ancillary extraction equipment and accessories are required?
In addition to an extractor for ethanol processes, consider investing in a full production suite that includes:
- A walk-in freezer.
- A filter skid for filtering the ethanol solution between extractions.
- A rotary evaporator or “rotovap” and decarb reactor, so you can bypass the evaporator and use your reactor for evaporation and decarboxylation.
6) Why are fully automated extraction systems better than manually operated systems?
Manually operated systems require an operator to have a deep understanding of the complexities of the system. Fully automated, “lights-out” extraction systems significantly reduce the amount of time required to learn how to operate the equipment. In addition, automation improves the consistency of the output, regardless of who operates the equipment.
7) Are automated systems safer than manual extraction systems?
They can be. The fully automated extraction systems from Prospiant have two levels of safety protection: electronic control and mechanical backups.
Electronic control continuously monitors the pressures within the entire system and will react automatically to an over-pressure condition to prevent damage to the equipment and release of CO2 into your facility. Manual systems don’t offer this level of safety control; instead, operators must continuously monitor the extraction equipment to prevent an over-pressure condition.
8) How many employees do I need to run an extraction line?
The number of operators required depends on the size, layout, and efficiency of your extraction facility.
With a proven extraction equipment supplier as your partner, you’ll be able to design, build, and install a full production suite that can streamline workflow through centrifuge, chilling ethanol, filtering, evaporation, decarboxylation, and distillation processes. The typical minimum number of extraction operators is three if they are well-trained and experienced.
9) How do I achieve higher yields and profits?
There’s not one right answer; every extraction business faces unique requirements and operating conditions. You’ll see and hear a lot of claims about extraction efficiency, productivity, and profitability in the marketplace. How can you evaluate what’s reliable and what can help you achieve your business objectives? Talk with a knowledgeable extraction equipment manufacturer such as Prospiant.
10) What are the key factors to maximize the ROI of extraction equipment?
Return on investment (ROI) is primarily dependent on biomass. You need adequate supply of plant material and a good balance of potency versus cost. If you will have low cannabinoid content, then the price per pound must be low. The extraction equipment cost is significant but having high potency or low cost will enable you to quickly recover that expense.
Of course, a good business plan also will include labor, overheads, and maintenance costs. Again, there’s not one answer that applies in every situation because each company sets its own business objectives and financial targets. That said, a highly knowledgeable extraction partner will help you identify opportunities to optimize equipment and processes in these areas:
- Performance: Reducing energy consumption, consumables, labor, and yield.
- Cycle times: Increasing throughput per hour.
- Ease of use: Simplifying operation and training.
- Reliability: Maximizing productivity, quality, and safety.
- Service: Minimizing unplanned downtime and repair costs.
What other questions should I ask?
Look for an extraction equipment provider with deep soil-to-oil experience, a large installed base, and one which excels at service. You’ll achieve your ambitions faster with an equipment provider who shares expertise that only comes from years of operational excellence and strong financial performance in the cannabis extraction industry.
As your partner, a leading equipment provider can work alongside your team to help you prepare to make extraction equipment purchase decisions. Their extractions specialists also will stand with you long after your equipment purchase. You’ll be confident that your investment in extraction equipment can enable you to realize your company’s goals for productivity, efficiency, quality, and profitability.