The Extraction Lab of the Future
Image credit: Luna Technologies
It’s been clear for some time to anyone watching that the cannabis concentrates market is not just expanding, it’s maturing. Increased demand means producers must increase capacity. But as customers become more knowledgeable and discerning, there’s a need for a greater variety of extracts from the top-shelf down. It’s more important than ever that producers invest in quality, efficiency, safety, and future-proofed technologies. Unfortunately, far too many producers are still using patchwork systems that waste time, energy and flower, opening the door to human error and inconsistency while placing employees and customers at risk.
It’s time to start dreaming up an extraction lab of the future. At Luna Technologies, we preach the benefits of integrated, automated, end-to-end extraction systems that maximize quality, variety, quantity, and provide the kind of data that can’t realistically be replicated by hand.
To that end, combining the benefits of butane hash oil (BHO) and ethanol extraction systems in the extraction lab of the future can revolutionize operations today while anticipating where our industry is headed.
Essential steps of extraction
Traditionally, commercial concentrates production is a multi-step process, carried out manually with a jigsaw puzzle of equipment:
Extraction: The process of separating essential oils, which contain the desirable cannabinoids and terpenes, away from the plant material using a solvent (typically hydrocarbons, ethanol, or CO2).
Centrifugation: The separation of the extract from the remaining biomass material.
Winterization: The act of freezing, and thus solidifying, leftover fats and waxes, in order to separate them from the extract.
Filtration: A two-step process to remove the winterized fats and waxes, via filters, then decolorize the extract using activated charcoal or other decolorizing media.
Evaporation: The separation of the final concentrate from the solvent.
Distillation: The final purification step whereby THC is distilled from the winterized crude oil (typically to 90 percent purity).
In a typical ethanol extraction facility, operators must manually move solvent/concentrate mixtures from a centrifuge to a freezer, then to a filter press, and eventually to an evaporator. Each of these machines was purchased and/or operated individually, each has its own learning curve and maintenance schedule, and each step along the way opens the door to error and creates bottlenecks in the production process. It also requires close supervision and a highly trained labor force.
But even if one has such resources at their disposal, it’s virtually impossible to collect reliable data by hand in a consistent and ongoing fashion. Asking a tech to manually record data points every five minutes leads to errors, of course, but also drastically slows down production.
At some point, whether it’s due to regulation or consumer demand for transparency, our industry will need to leverage internet of things (IoT) technologies to achieve compliance. Whether you’re looking at pharmaceuticals or food and beverage, the data gathered from automated systems is essential for producing safe, high-quality products at scale and for protecting against legal liability. Rather than counting on the accuracy of a tech’s spreadsheets or notepad, we should be able to monitor production data in real-time or quickly reference a particular batch’s records at a moment’s notice.
For us, the extraction lab of the future means end-to-end extraction at the push of a button. It means automatic record keeping that will prove invaluable to your product itself, and for dealing with even the most stringent of regulators.
At Luna Technologies, we were able to accomplish both of these goals when developing the IO and Oberon BHO extractors, our fully automated hydrocarbon extraction systems. We saw them as the high-water mark in extraction technology. But we realized the extraction lab of the future could go one step further, which is why we’ve now developed the Elara ethanol extraction system.
Our hope is that producers will combine our ethanol and BHO systems, to make the most of what each solvent has to offer. Ethanol is ideal for high-capacity commodity products, such as distillate. Light hydrocarbons, because of their low boiling points and selectivity, are able to extract a full range of cannabinoids and terpenes without degrading the product, enabling the kind of full-spectrum concentrates that can really set one’s brand apart.
Meanwhile, newly legal cannabis markets have followed a familiar pattern. They start with demand for high-THC products, but, over time, consumers evolve – they begin to understand the entourage effect (the mingling of various cannabinoids and terpenes that shape our experiences with cannabis) and develop more particular and sophisticated tastes. Consumer preferences shift from high-THC distillate products to flavorful high-end oils, live resin, shatter, and wax.
The extraction lab of the future demands flexibility. At some point, we realized that producers, now and down the road, would be responding not just to demand from consumers, but to supply from growers. Not all flower rewards the kind of caring and highly selective extraction that BHO offers; much of the flower in production is more suited to ethanol’s benefits. It’s a tremendously fast and efficient solvent, perfect for extracting maximum levels of THC and other cannabinoids from the flower.
Our newest system, the Elara, brings end-to-end production capability, and industry-leading data collection, to ethanol extraction. It can process 120 pounds of biomass per hour, with minimal downtime between batches, producing concentrates with 80-90 percent purity. Such consistent results are possible with fully automated top-of-the-line centrifugation, filtration, and temperature control. To that end, we partnered with Verdara, a leader in cryogenic engineering for the last half century, to engineer the state-of-the-art cryoextraction technology found in the Elara.
From left to right: ambient temperature extraction with no filtration, ambient temperature extraction with Elara four-stage filtration, Elara cryoextraction at -40℉, with no filtration, Elara cryoextraction at -40℉ with Elara four-stage filtration. Image credit: Luna Technologies.
Bringing ethanol and BHO extraction together
With the comparably small footprints of both systems (and low labor costs), the extraction lab of the future will include a combination of ethanol and BHO systems, taking advantage of the benefits of both based on the available inputs and desired end-products. This would allow for combinations of concentrates that take advantage of ethanol’s high THC levels and BHO’s full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, with maximum efficiency and minimum expense.
Luna Technologies' vision for the extraction lab of the future offers flexibility, control, cost-effectiveness, and safety previously unheard of in the extraction space, and ensures you’re equipped with the kind of good manufacturing practices that will likely become a precondition in our industry.