Tag Archives: chromatograph

An Evaluation of Sample Preparation Techniques for Cannabis Potency Analysis

By Kelsey Cagle, Frank L. Dorman, Jessica Westland
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Sample preparation is an essential part of method development and is critical to successful analytical determinations. With cannabis and cannabis products, the analyst is faced with a very challenging matrix and targets that may range from trace level through percent level thus placing considerable demands on the sample preparation techniques.1 The optimal sample preparation, or “extraction”, method for potency analysis of cannabis flower was determined using a methanol extraction coupled with filtration using regenerated cellulose filters. 

In the United States (US), Canada, and other countries where medicinal and/or adult recreational cannabis has been legalized, regulatory entities require a panel of chemical tests to ensure quality and safety of the products prior to retail sales2. Cannabis testing can be divided into two different categories: Quality and Safety. Quality testing, which includes potency analysis (also known as cannabinoid testing or cannabinoid content), is performed to analyze the product in accordance with the producer/grower expectations and government regulations. Safety testing is conducted under regulatory guidelines to ensure that consumers are not exposed to toxicants such as pesticides, mycotoxins, heavy metals, residual solvents and microbial contaminates.

Potency testing evaluates the total amount of cannabinoid content, specifically focusing on tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). In the US, the biggest push for accurate total THC is to differentiate between hemp (legally grown for industrial or medicinal use), which is defined as cannabis sativa with a THC limit ≤ 0.3 %, and cannabis (Cannabis spp.), which is any cannabis plant with THC measured above 0.3 %3. Potency testing is typically performed by liquid chromatography (LC) with UV detection to determine the quantity of major cannabinoids.

In addition to reporting THC and CBD, their respective precursors are also important for reporting total potency. Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) is the inactive precursor to THC while cannabidiolic acid (CBDA) is the precursor to CBD.4,5

Methods and Materials

Sample Preparation

All samples were homogenized using an immersion blender with a dry material grinder. The nominal sample amounts were 200 mg of flower, 500 mg of edibles, and 250 mg of candy samples.

Potency Extraction Method (1)

Twenty milliliters (mL) of methanol (MeOH) was added to each sample. The samples were mechanically shaken for 10 minutes and centrifuged for 5 minutes.

Potency Extraction Method (2)

Ten mL of water was added to each sample. The samples were mechanically shaken for 10 minutes. 20 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) was then added to each sample and vortexed. An EN QuEChERS extraction salt packet was added to the sample. The samples were placed on a mechanical shaker for 2 minutes and then centrifuged for 5 minutes.

Each extract was split and evaluated with two filtration/cleanup steps: (1) a regenerated cellulose (RC) syringe filter (Agilent Technologies, 4 mm, 0.45 µm); (2) a PFTE syringe filter (Agilent Technologies, 4 mm, 0.45 µm). The final filtered extracts were injected into the ultra-performance liquid chromatograph coupled with a photodiode array detector (UPLC-PDA) for analysis.

Figure 1: Calibration curve for THC potency


Standards were obtained for the following cannabinoids at a concentration of 1 mg/mL: cannabidivarin (CBDV), tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV), cannabidiol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), cannabidiolic acid (CBDA), cannabigerolic acid (CBGA), cannabinol (CBN), tetrahydrocannabinol (9-THC), cannabichromene (CBC), tetrahydrocannabinol acid (THCA). Equal volumes of each standard were mixed with MeOH to make a standard stock solution of 10 ug/mL. Serial dilutions were made from the stock to make concentrations of 5, 1, and 0.5 ug/mL for the calibration curve (Figure 1).

Instrumental Method

All instrument parameters were followed from Agilent Application Note 5991-9285EN.8 A UPLC with a PDA (Waters Corp, Milford, MA) detector was employed for potency analysis. An InfinityLab Poroshell 120 EC-C18, 3.0 x 50 mm, 2.7 um column (Agilent Technologies, Wilmington, DE) was utilized for compound separation. The organic mobile phase composition was 0.05 % (v/v) formic acid in HPLC grade MeOH and the aqueous mobile phase composition was 0.1 % (v/v) formic acid in HPLC grade water. The mobile phase gradient is shown in Table 1. The flow rate was 1 mL/min (9.5 minute total program), injection volume was 5 uL, and column temperature was 50 °C.

Table 1: LC mobile phase gradient for potency samples6

Discussion and Results

Table 2 summarizes the relative standard deviations (% RSD) were found for the THC calibrator (at 1 ug/mL) and one extract of a homogeneous sample (utilizing 7 replicates).

Table 2- %RSD values for the instrument response precision for THC in both the calibrations and the homogeneous extract.

The cannabinoid potency of various cannabis plant and cannabis product samples were determined for the various extraction techniques In the chromatograms THC was observed ~8.08 minutes and CBD was observed ~4.61 minutes (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Chromatogram of the 10ug/mL calibrator for potency/cannabinoid analysis

Total potency for THC & CBD were calculated for each sample using the equations below. Equation 1 was used because it accounts for the presence of THCA as well as the specific weight difference between THC and THCA (since THCA will eventually convert to THC, this needs to be accounted for in the calculations).

Table 3 shows the % THC and the total THC potency values calculated for the same flower samples that went through all four various potency sample preparation techniques as described earlier. Figure 3 also provides LC chromatograms for flower sample 03281913A-2 and edible sample 03281912-1.

Table 3-THC and Total THC potency values for the same cannabis flower sample processed through the combination of extractions and cleanups.
Figure 3: Potency/Cannabinoid analysis chromatogram for flower sample 03281913A-2 (red trace) and edible sample 03281912-1 (green trace).

The results indicated that with the “Potency Extraction Method 2” (ACN/QuEChERS extraction) coupled with the RC filter provided a bias of 7.29 % greater for total THC % over the other extraction techniques. Since the other 3 techniques provided total THC values within 2% of each other, the total THC of the sample is more likely ~14%.

Since the sample dilution for the above data set reduced the CBD content, an undiluted sample was run and analyzed. This data is reported in Table 4.

Table 4- CBD and Total CBD potency values for the same cannabis flower sample processed through different sample preparation techniques.

The CBD results indicated that with the “Potency Extraction Method 1” (methanol extraction) coupled with RC filter, allowed for a greater CBD recovery. This may indicate the loss of CBD with an ACN/QuEChERS extraction.

With an average ~14% total THC and 0.06% total CBD for a homogenous cannabis flower sample, the optimal sample preparation extraction was determined to be a methanol extraction coupled with filtration using a regenerated cellulose filter. Since potency continues to remain at the forefront of cannabis regulatory testing it is important to utilize the right sample prep for your cannabis samples.


  1. Wang M, Wang YH, Avula B, Radwan MM, Wanas AS, Mehmedic Z, et al. Quantitative Determination of Cannabinoids in Cannabis and Cannabis Products Using Ultra-High-Performance Supercritical Fluid Chromatography and Diode Array/Mass Spectrometric Detection. Journal of Forensic Sciences 2016;62(3):602-11.
  2. Matthew Curtis, Eric Fausett, Wendi A. Hale, Ron Honnold, Jessica Westland, Peter J. Stone, Jeffery S. Hollis, Anthony Macherone. Cannabis Science and Technology, September/October 2019, Volume 2, Issue 5.
  3. Sian Ferguson. https://www.healthline.com/health/hemp-vs-marijuana. August 27, 2020.
  4. Taschwer M, Schmid MG. Determination of the relative percentage distribution of THCA and 9-THC in herbal cannabis seized in Austria- Impact of different storage temperatures on stability. Forensic Science International 2015; 254:167-71.
  5. Beadle A. CBDA Vs CBD: What are the differences? [Internet]. Analytical Cannabis. 2019 [cited 2020 Apr 22]; https://www.analyticalcannabis.com/articles/cbda-vs-cbd-what-are-the-differences-312019.
  6. Storm C, Zumwalt M, Macherone A. Dedicated Cannabinoid Potency Testing Using the Agilent 1220 Infinity II LC System. Agilent Technologies, Inc. Application Note 5991-9285EN

Agilent Partners with LSSU on Cannabis Chemistry & Research

By Aaron G. Biros
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Back in August, Lake Superior State University (LSSU) announced the formation of a strategic partnership with Agilent Technologies to “facilitate education and research in cannabis chemistry and analysis.” The university formed the LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence (CoE), which is sponsored by Agilent. The facility, powered by top-of-the-line Agilent instrumentation, is designed for research and education in cannabis science, according to a press release.

Chemistry student, Justin Blalock, calibrates an Agilent 1290 Ultra-High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph with a 6470 Tandem Mass Spectrometer in the new LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence, Sponsored by Agilent.

The LSSU Cannabis CoE will help train undergraduate students in the field of cannabis science and analytical chemistry. “The focus of the new LSSU Cannabis CoE will be training undergraduate students as job-ready chemists, experienced in multi-million-dollar instrumentation and modern techniques,” reads the press release. “Students will be using Agilent’s preeminent scientific instruments in their coursework and in faculty-mentored undergraduate research.”

The facility has over $2 million dollars of Agilent instruments including their UHPLC-MS/MS, UHPLC-TOF, GC-MS/MS, LC-DAD, GC/MS, GC-FID/ECD, ICP-MS and MP-AES. Those instruments are housed in a 2600 square-foot facility in the Crawford Hall of Science. In February earlier this year, LSSU launched the very first program for undergraduate students focused completely on cannabis chemistry. With the new facility and all the technology that comes with it, they hope to develop a leading training center for chemists in the cannabis space.

Dr. Steve Johnson, Dean of the College of Science and the Environment at LSSU, says making this kind of instrumentation available to undergraduate studies is a game changer. “The LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence, Sponsored by Agilent was created to provide a platform for our students to be at the forefront of the cannabis analytics industry,” says Dr. Johnson. “The instrumentation available is rarely paralleled at other undergraduate institutions. The focus of the cannabis program is to provide our graduates with the analytical skills necessary to move successfully into the cannabis industry.”

Storm Shriver is the Laboratory Director at Unitech Laboratories, a cannabis testing lab in Michigan, and sounds eager to work with students in the program. “I was very excited to learn about your degree offerings as there is a definite shortage of chemists who have experience with data analysis and operation of the analytical equipment required for the analysis of cannabis,” says Shriver. “I am running into this now as I begin hiring and scouting for qualified individuals. I am definitely interested in a summer internship program with my laboratory.”

LSSU hopes the new facility and program will help lead the way for more innovation in cannabis science and research. For more information, visit LSSU.edu.

From The Lab

The Other Side of Cannabis: Terpenes

By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, Allegra Leghissa, Dr. Kevin A. Schug

Have you ever wondered why all beers have that strong, characteristic smell? Or why you could tell the smell of cannabis apart from any other plant? The answer is simple – terpenes.

These 55,000 different molecules are responsible for a majority of the odors and fragrances around us, from a pine forest, to the air diffuser in your house 1–3. They all share the same precursor, isoprene, and because of that, they are all related and have similar molecular structures. Unfortunately, it is this uncanny similarity that makes their analysis so challenging; we still lack a complete list of which terpenes expected to be found in each given plant species 1,2.

Many different methods have been developed in an effort to provide a time-optimized and straightforward analysis. Gas chromatography (GC) is usually center stage due to the volatility of the terpenes. Therefore, there is significant concern with the type of GC detector used 2.

The flame ionization detector (FID) is a good quantitative detector for GC, but qualitatively it does not provide any information, except for retention time; the differentiation between terpene species is achieved solely by use of retention indices (RI), which are based on elution times from a particular GC stationary phase. The best part of the FID is its low cost, reliability, and relatively easy interface, which make it an effective tool for quality control (QC) but less so with respect to research and discovery 2.

The primary choice for a research setting is the mass spectrometer (MS) detector. It is more expensive and complicated than FID, but importantly, it provides both good quantitative capabilities, and it provides mass spectra for each species that elutes from the chromatograph. However, for terpene analysis, it may still not be the best detector choice. Since terpene class molecules share many structural and functional similarities, even their fragmentation and sub-sequential identification by MS may lead to inconsistent results, which need to be confirmed by use of RI. Still, MS is a better qualitative analysis tool than the FID, especially for distinguishing non-isobaric terpenes 2.

Recently, new technology based on vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy (VUV) has been developed as a new GC detector. The VUV detector enables analysis of virtually all molecules; virtually all chemical compounds absorb light in the range in the 125-240 nm wavelength range probed by the detector, making it an essentially universal detector 4–11. Previously, spectroscopic absorption detectors for GC have lacked sufficient energy to measure absorption of most GC-amenable species. The VUV detector fills a niche, which is complementary to MS detection in terms of the qualitative information it provides.

Figure 1: A, Section of the chromatographic separation of a terpenes standard mix; B, highlight of the co-eluting terpenes, camphor and (-)-isopulegol; C, differences in the absorbance spectra of camphor and (-)-isopulegol.

With the VUV detector, each compound exhibits its own unique absorbance spectrum. Even isomers and isobars, which are prevalent in terpene mixtures and can be difficult to distinguish different species by their electron ionization mass spectra, can be well differentiated based on their VUV spectra 6,9,10.  Nevertheless, because analytes exhibit different spectra, it is not required to achieve a perfect chromatographic separation of the mixture components. Co-eluting peaks can be separated post-run through the use of library spectra and software inherent to the instrument 4,10. This ability is called “deconvolution”, and it is based on the fact that two co-eluting terpenes will give a peak with an absorbance spectrum equal to the sum of the two single absorbance spectra 4. Figure 1 shows the deconvolution process for two co-eluting terpenes, camphor and (-)-isopulegol. Due to their different absorbance spectra (Figure 1C), it is possible to fully separate the two peaks in post-run, obtaining sharp peaks for both analytes 6.

The deconvolution process has been shown to yield precise and accurate results. Thus, chromatographic resolution can be sacrificed in favor of spectroscopic resolution; this enables the development of methods with faster run times. With the ability to deconvolve unresolved peaks, a long temperature ramp to chromatographically separate all isomeric terpenes is not required 6. Additionally, the presence of coeluting components, which might normally go undetected with some GC detectors, can be easily judged based on comparison of the measured spectra with pure reference spectra contained in the VUV spectral library.

The other issue in terpenes analysis is the extraction process. Terpenes can be extracted with the use of solvents (e.g., methanol, ethanol, hexane, and cyclohexane, among others), but the process is usually time-consuming, costly and not so environmentally-friendly 2. The plant needs to be manually crushed and then aliquots of solvent are used to extract components from the plant, ideally at least 3 times and combined to achieve acceptable results. The problem is that some terpenes may respond better to a certain solvent, making their extraction easier and more optimized than for others 2. The choice of solvent can cause discrimination against the extraction some terpenes, which limits the comprehensiveness of analysis.

Headspace is another technique that can be used for the sample preparation of terpenes. Headspace sampling is based on heating the solid or liquid sample inside a sealed vial, and then analyzing the air above it after sufficient equilibration. In this way, only volatile analytes are extracted from the solid/liquid sample into the gas phase; this allows relatively interference-free sampling 12–14.

How do we know whether our extraction analysis methods are correct and comprehensive for a certain plant sample? Unfortunately, there is not a complete list of available molecules for each plant species, and even if two specimens may smell really similar to our nose, their terpenes profiles may be notably different. When working with a new plant material, it is difficult to predict the extraction efficiency for the vast array of terpenes that may be present. We can only perform it with different extraction and detection methods, and compare the results.

The route for a comprehensive and fast analysis of terpenes is therefore still long; however, their intoxicating aromas and inherent medicinal value has provided a growing impetus for researchers around the world. Considering the evolving importance of Cannabis and the growing body of evidence on the synergistic effects between terpenes and cannabinoids, it is likely that newly improved extraction and analysis methods will be developed, paving the way for a more complete list of terpene species that can be found in different cultivars. The use of new analytical technologies, such as the VUV detector for GC, should aid considerably in this endeavor.


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