The New Frontier of Cannabis Extraction Facilities
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Far out in the plains of north Colorado sit two warehouses. Their vast size and remoteness might convey a classified purpose, but don’t be fooled. These hangars aren’t housing any top-secret fighter jets or supercomputers. No, they’re packed with devices far more valuable. These warehouses are full of CBD extraction equipment.
This is the headquarters of Vantage Hemp, a relatively young CBD extraction company, but one with a big vision. Packed with extraction machines, winterization drums, and even an in-house testing lab, Vantage’s facility is an industrial operation. It’s a far cry from the humble on-the-farm extraction set-ups that characterized the CBD industry in its early days, but that’s the point.
For years, hemp and CBD weren’t federally legal commodities in the US. As such, many well financed investors kept their distance and left the sector to smaller operations. But then the Farm Bill was passed in December 2018 and everything changed. From then on, hemp and CBD were federally legal and larger operations like Vantage Hemp were given the green light to get extracting.
Two years on from that moment, the future of smaller CBD processors is still unknown. Given the widespread popularity of the cannabis compound, there could well be room for local operators to thrive off their communities and quaint marketing. But it’s undoubtable that nationwide access and appetite will benefit the CBD companies like Vantage Hemp that can meet a larger demand.
So, if Vantage’s warehouses embody the future of this section of industrial extraction, what does that future look like in detail? Well, Analytical Cannabis took a virtual tour of the company’s facilities to find out.
“We’re currently in Falcon,” says Deepank Utkhede, Vantage’s chief operating officer, “which is a 35,000 square foot facility. And we also have a building across the street called Raven, which is a 25,000 square foot facility.”
Standing in the avian-christened warehouse, camera in hand, Utkhede slowly turns 360 degrees so Falcon’s full scope can be taken in. Even via a virtual video link, its volume is palpable.
“Falcon is focused on biomass storage, processing, preparation for extraction, along with CO2 extraction, and we have an analytical lab and a decarboxylation system,” Utkhede continues.
Walking over to one side of the hangar, Utkhede gestures to the open shutters that first welcome the hemp material into the facility.
“What you’re seeing here is all of our biomass storage,” he says. “We have enough racking here to store about a million pounds of biomass.”
“Each lot of biomass that comes in is tested individually,” he continues. “We take no results from our growers and vendors; we do everything internal. So every bag is tested for a cannabinoid profile and then we take a sample that’s sent out to a third party lab for, again, cannabinoid profiles, but also for pesticides, heavy metals, and microbials.”
This on-site lab isn’t far from where Utkhede is speaking from. Walking over and peering in, the separate room seems almost like a scaled-down version of the main facility; smaller, more portable versions of key machines line the benches, and these can be used to test how their larger counterparts perform under different conditions.
“We have small-scale versions of our large-scale processes,” Utkhede says. “On the left here is a small-scale version of our winterization. And on the right[…] is a small-scale version of our distillation process. So, instead of 500 to 1000 liters, we can do something on 100 to 500 mils [milliliters]. And we instead of one [distillation] per a couple of days we can do four or five in a day and get a lot of good data very quickly.”
“We can take that data,” Utkhede adds, “determine what our best operating parameters are and then test a couple of those parameters on the large-scale to produce the data and confirm that, on the small-scale, what we have observed also translates to the large-scale.”
But before any large-scale product material can be compared to the lab’s smaller output, it first has to be created. And a prime step in this process happens just next door to the micro laboratory.
“Our first step in the process is decarboxylation of the biomass. So, the biomass is pulled off the racks and then brought into this room over here,” Utkhede says as he brings the camera into a separate chamber of the Falcon facility. In here, stands a colossal machine that almost touches the warehouse’s ceiling. This, Utkhede explains, is Vantage’s rather distinctive continuous flow oven.
“This is basically a continuous flow decarboxylation system, which is unique to the industry,” he says. “Most decarboxylation processes employed by extractors use static ovens; biomass is loaded onto trays, put into the oven, and then decarboxylated for a fixed period of time at a fixed temperature and then brought out.”
“With this system here, what we have is basically a continuous flow oven,” he says. “And so biomass is loaded into this hopper over here. It’s been conveyed all the way up to the top and then it's loaded into the system. And there's basically two sections; there's one on this second level here, which is basically a long tube. And within that tube is a series of paddles. Biomass comes into one side of the tube, those paddles mix the biomass, and push it from one end of the tube to the other. That top tube is heated to 365 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s where decarboxylation happens. It then drops to this second tube that’s on this lower level here. And that tube cools the biomass back down to room temperature.”
With the precious cannabinoids, such as CBD, now active from this thorough decarboxylation process, the material is now ready to be extracted in one of the six supercritical CO2 extractors found within the main Falcon facility.
“When they’re fully operational, they [the CO2 extractors] run about a ton a day of biomass,” Utkhede says.
From here, the extracts are then taken across the street into the Raven facility, which houses the company’s winterization, distillation, and crystallization equipment.
Into the future
All in all, the whole operation is about as industrial as it can get in the CBD extraction sector. The buildings even contain airlock intermediary areas and PPE (personal protective equipment) changing rooms to prevent contamination. So, after he’d finished donning his own white gown, hairnet, and goggles, Analytical Cannabis asked Utkhede whether Vantage’s scale really is the future of cannabis and hemp extraction.
“Absolutely,” he quickly replies. “We really do feel that this is going to be the standard. The small mom-and-pop operations are not going to survive. And the main reason is the regulations – not the federal regulations around whether it’s legal or not – the regulations around the quality required in order to produce a product acceptable for human consumption.
“You’ve got to treat it like a medicine,” Utkhede emphasizes. “You got to produce it and have the same rigor around its manufacturing as you would any other pharmaceutical. And with that in mind, a mom-and-pop operation with a small-scale CO2 extractor in a barn, they’re just not going to be able to achieve the compliance necessary to ensure safety of the general public.”
“And the way to ensure profitability is scale,” he adds. “And that’s what’s represented here.”
This article originally appeared in Analytical Cannabis' Advances in Cannabis Extraction and Processing eBook in March 2021.