Botanical extraction is not specific to cannabis and hemp, and it is anything but new. Rudimentary forms of plant extraction have existed throughout history and evolved with high-tech equipment and scientific procedures for use in pharmaceuticals, dietary supplements and botanicals.
In food production, examples of hydrocarbon extraction processes are commonplace. Nut, olive and vegetable oil production use solvents to extract the oils. Decaffeinated coffee uses hydrocarbon extraction to remediate the caffeine, and making sugar from beets, or beer from hops, also requires solvents.
As such, the FDA has set guidelines for the amount of residual solvents considered safe for consumers to ingest. Yet, without FDA guidance in cannabis and hemp, many products aren’t being tested against these standards, and consumers will ultimately pay the price.
Understanding solvent remediation technology and processes
If we use ethanol extraction as an example, the extraction process is relatively simple. First, we soak the biomass in denatured or food-grade ethanol, ending up with a final solution that is 90-95% solvent. Then, we perform a bulk removal of the solvents, which takes out most, but not all, of the solvent. The next and final step should be to strip the remaining solvents from the extract entirely.
But, in order to do so effectively, you need the right equipment, and unfortunately, this is where many producers fall short. Many producers use a vacuum oven to apply heat while reducing the headspace pressure to lower the solvent’s boiling point and evaporate it off.
However, it’s a static environment in a vacuum oven, which means the material is stagnant. So, the process may effectively remove the solvents close to the surface, but solvents deep inside the material tend to get trapped without some type of agitation or mixing.
The appropriate final step to complete solvent remediation is wipe-film distillation, which feeds small volumes into a column, which is then wiped into a very thin film and heated under vacuum pressure. Although the equipment necessary is costly, this last step removes any residual solvents from the product to create a safe, effective and consumable product.
Residual solvents present huge risks
As stated, many of the same solvents used in cannabis and hemp extraction have been considered safe in food production for decades. Reviewing chemical data sheets, many of the acceptable limits on solvents were determined for ingestion, which is fine for edibles and tinctures, but many cannabis and hemp products are intended for inhalation or vaporization.
Unfortunately, some solvents can have negative health impacts, especially for those using cannabis or hemp for medical purposes or with compromised immune systems. Plus, as a therapeutic and recreational substance, consumers may be consuming more than the recommended amount, as well as using the products several times a day. Unfortunately, long-term exposure or repeated inhalation of these residual solvents hasn’t been thoroughly researched.
For example, inhaling ethyl alcohol (ethanol) can irritate the nose, throat and lungs. Extended exposure can cause headaches, drowsiness, nausea, vomiting and unconsciousness. Repeated exposure can affect the liver and nervous system.
In the food industry, hexane is approved for extracting spices or hops, and this solvent is widely used in cannabis and hemp extraction. However, if used in an inhalable product, chronic exposure to hexane could be detrimental, with symptoms including numbness in the extremities, weakness, vision problems and fatigue.
Consumers deserve transparency
In the industry’s earliest days, companies were tight-lipped about their processes, the chemicals they used and how they removed them. Everyone thought they had the “secret sauce” and didn’t want to share their approach. Today, companies are more open about what they use, how they process it and providing that necessary transparency.
Lack of quality and consistent regulations in these industries creates confusion for the consumers and loopholes for producers. Some producers test for everything under the sun, and some producers know exactly which labs will pass their products, regardless of test results.
While the regulatory bodies are distracted by the amount of THC that might linger in products, getting sick is overshadowed by the risk of getting high. In the meantime, consumers are left to their own devices to determine which products are safe and which are not.
Although testing mandates and regulations will help clean up the industry, until then, consumers need to demand full-panel COAs that not only show cannabinoid potency but also accurately display the test results for residual solvents, pesticides and heavy metals.
Automated extraction equipment and technologies are rapidly becoming the standard in the extraction sector of the cannabis industry. Like most evolving industries, manual and operator driven processes are what starts an industry, but with explosive growth, demand for increased safety, efficiency and repeatability grows. Specifically within the cannabis industry, we’re noticing a rising demand for higher quality extracts and a safer, more repeatable environment for cannabinoid extraction. These are all reasons for the industry making a shift towards automated extraction equipment and technologies.
What Automation Looks Like in Cannabis Extraction
Automation in the cannabis industry doesn’t necessarily mean implementing robotics and creating operator-less facilities; It typically refers to automated process control. Traditional, older technologies are manual and operator-driven. This means the equipment operator is in control of all parameters of the process, which leads to inconsistencies throughout the process caused by human error. As the extraction process has many steps: ethanol holding, chilling, extraction agitation, extraction discharge, extraction solvent removal, particle filtration, semi saturated solution storage, and so much more that involves valves, pumps and controls between each piece of the process, it becomes difficult to control such a tedious process manually. When all of these processes are controlled and monitored using proper automation technology, facilities can safely ensure that each batch is run following the same process and parameters accordingly. This is critical for product consistency, a concern for manufacturers and many end-consumers. As the cannabis industry grows, matures and makes its way closer to federal legalization, product safety and consistency become a top-priority for everyone involved.
Greater Quality Control of End-Products
Consistency and repeatability are just as important for cannabis processors as they are for standard food or pharmaceutical processors. Deploying a manual process of equipment operating and monitoring leaves far too much room for human error, and doesn’t provide the level of control needed for the industry as it continues to progress toward stricter product regulations and requirements. On the other hand, an automated extraction process ensures that the same solvent ratios are used batch-to-batch, the same extraction temperatures and recipe parameters are implemented, the same pump and process flow rates are deployed, and all processes are repeatable, predictable and scalable while producing a safe, consistent product.
The benefits of automated extraction are directly tied to establishing greater efficiency in processes. Efficiency can be experienced via less scrap product from unmanaged batches and/or less labor to operate and control the process. Automation means allowing a recipe-driven control system monitor and control the process, eliminating process bottlenecks that have been notorious for destroying productivity in manual extraction operations.
As Cannabis Extraction Processes Become Automated, They Become Safer.
A team is what drives any business forward. The safety of that team needs to be a top priority for any business leader. As cannabis extraction processes become automated, they become safer. With less equipment interaction, the likelihood for human error that could lead to safety hazards significantly decreases. Properly programmed automation can establish advanced system interlocks that check multiple points throughout the process for irregularities, and can halt a machine based on these irregularities it detects. That level of process monitoring and control is only available when automation and PLC logic controls equipment.
Data Collection and Validation
When we tie all the benefits of extraction automation together, it makes for a far more attractive system than traditional,manual processes that we’re used to seeing in the cannabis industry. In addition to the major benefits listed above, automation gives a superior level of data collection for process improvements and process validation which is key in cGMP or EU-GPM facilities. This is the future for every processing facility in the arena of cannabis. As the industry matures, it will continue to become more competitive. Facilities with automation will have the capacity to maximize their process efficiencies, produce a far superior and more consistent end–product and will have a competitive advantage in the extraction sector.
Vaping is a multi-billion dollar cannabis product category representing more than 20% category share in the US, according to a recent Headset.io report. The 2019 vaping crisis, whereby lung injury and several deaths were caused by the adulteration of vapor pen cartridges with vitamin E acetate, highlighted the importance of safety and emissions testing for vapor pen products. In addition to volatile organic compounds, metals and ceramics contained in the heating elements of cartridges are also a concern. While the FDA has a robust program for emissions testing in nicotine products, they do not currently regulate cannabis. Cannabis vaping is currently regulated at the state level in the United States.
Cannabis vaping is popular among minors owing to its discrete nature. In a recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 14.7% of teens reported vaping cannabis in 2018. In a separate research study, University of Michigan researchers found that teens vaping cannabis were two times more likely to experience respiratory issues than teens who smoked e-cigarettes.
We spoke with Corey Mangold, CEO and founder of PurTec Delivery Systems, to learn more about cannabis vaping safety and their PurGuard technology. Prior to entering the cannabis space, Corey founded a software company in 1998. He also founded the advertising agency Gigasavvy in 2008, which he recently exited from in March 2021.
Aaron Green: How did you get started in the cannabis industry?
Corey Mangold: I got started in the cannabis industry in 2016. My daughter was away at college in San Luis Obispo and got pregnant and was going to have a baby, which obviously I was excited about. I decided to have her come down to Southern California and start a company together, as I’ve done multiple times in my career successfully. I wanted to show her the ropes, and teach her everything from finance to HR, to business development, marketing – everything it takes to be successful – and give her the tools that she would need to be successful for her life.
Green: What kind of things were you into before 2016?
Mangold: I founded my first company in 1998 in the software industry and had that company up until 2005. In 2008 I started another company called Gigasavvy, a nationally recognized advertising agency out of Irvine, California, which I successfully exited in March of 2021.
When deciding to start a company with my daughter, we were interested in the cannabis industry – I think everybody was back in 2016. In 2016, I had started using cannabis again after probably about a 16- or 17-year hiatus. I was using a vape because I had children in the house. I went to literally anywhere I could and bought every type of cartridge on the market. What I found was that their user experience was not like what it was on the nicotine side of vaping. I reached out to associates of mine who had been manufacturing vapes since 2011, starting with the blue e-cigarette, and we engineered a unique device that was proprietary and completely unlike anything on the market. It was incredible, and still to this day, I think it’s probably the best 510 thread cart on the market. We launched that under the Orchid Essentials (CNSX: ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) brand in California and Oregon.
Green: Is that cart something that you sell to other brands as well, or is it purely for the Orchid brand?
Mangold: Yes, purely for the Orchid brand, but it’s what inspired me to start PurTec Delivery Systems. After a few years of struggling in this industry because we didn’t have the access to capital needed – Orchid is a US company traded on the Canadian Stock Exchange (CSE:ORCD, OTC:ORVRF) – and dealing in a substance that’s federally illegal, there was no access to any traditional financing, be it factoring or inventory financing. We were literally creating as much product as we could every month and then selling out almost instantly, and then waiting till the next month to get money in from all our accounts to make more. We had to slug it out. We did get into a little over 500 stores in California and Oregon, but it was just a battle, and I didn’t really want to be touching cannabis.
In 2020, I had a breakthrough in my strategy. I was watching the TV show Gold Rush and I watched one of the guys go and have to buy a new wash plant. He pulls up to this dealer’s yard that sells wash plants and tractors. I saw this dealer had a lot of inventory and clearly a lot of money, and I realized the place to make money was selling the shovels, not really digging for gold. I said to myself if I have the best shovel out there, why am I digging? I should just be innovating new shovels and selling shovels. Hence, I started PurTec Delivery Systems and now for the last year and a half have been 100% focused on developing advanced vaporizer technologies.
Green: Tell me more about PurTec.
Mangold: I founded PurTec with the sole intention of creating safe vaporizers for consumers. We conducted an 18-month safety study in Switzerland with our partners, on vaping devices in the market. I learned a lot of things that I already knew but wanted to see it proven by independent laboratories and by PhDs and MDs, and really see what was so concerning to me. For the last year and a half, we have sought to develop a safe line of vaporizers. I’m very cognizant about what’s going on in my body and want to know what’s going on internally with these products. I don’t think anyone would be using them if they knew what was really going into their lungs.
Green: What are some of the things that consumers should be thinking about when it comes to vape safety?
Mangold: Consumers should be thinking about all the different aspects from inhaling vaporized heavy metals to ceramics. Ceramic particle inhalation is one of my biggest concerns. I think it’s been ignored. I think all the manufacturers know about it and I think it’s been swept under the rug. I think it’s one of the threats that we have. There should be regulatory bodies that are out there protecting consumers like the FDA, hence why I believe federal legalization is so important, because if the FDA was involved not even one of these products would be on the market because the first thing the FDA would do would be very extensive emissions testing to find out what compounds and potential toxins are entering into your body.
Green: There’s clearly a need for safety and regulation in the space, but from where you’re sitting, is there a demand? When consumers go into a store, one of their main focuses is: what’s the THC content? How do you see consumer demand for safety and how do you think about building that awareness?
Mangold: I don’t think there is consumer demand yet. The consumer demand right now is for getting medicated and having fun or getting whatever relief or primary reason you use cannabis. I can point to a direct correlation with the opioid epidemic. No one knew they were as horrible as they are, and doctors were prescribing them left and right, and everyone thought it was okay. People think these cannabis products are okay because they’re on the shelf in every licensed dispensary, and the California Department of Health and the Department of Health in every other state and country has been involved to some degree. So, consumers think that they’re safe. The problem is they’re likely not just like we weren’t with opioids.
I don’t think the consumer demand will be there for quite some time until we start seeing a lot of long-term health impacts where we start seeing people getting lung disease, we start seeing people getting iron lung, different potential brain issues from inhaling adhesives and heavy metals. I think once the health impacts are seen clinically – just like we saw with the opioid crisis – once that was really in the forefront, everybody saw with their own eyes, and then they were aware that there was a problem. So, I think that it’s important to become aware of the potential health impacts, but I think it will take quite some time before that happens.
Green: It sounds to me like you want to get ahead of the industry on this because if it does go federally legal, there will be more stringent requirements. How do you think about that from a product design and development perspective to get ahead of a problem that exists but isn’t reflected in current regulations?
Mangold: The best thing we can do right now in the cannabis vape industry is to look at what the nicotine vape industry is doing. It is controlled by the FDA and there are standards for vaporizers in other parts of the world that are very stringent, like the AFNOR standards, which are in the European Union regulations for vaporizer safety.
What we do is we find the most stringent standards in the world, and we test our products to those standards. If the standards get stricter, we can develop our products and re-engineer them to meet those new requirements. Right now, all our products are emissions tested at AFNOR standards and over-engineered even for those standards. We also are constantly working on reduction of potentially hazardous materials: reductions of heavy metals; only using proven safe and effective materials and FDA approved materials like SAE 316L surgical stainless steel; and using improved ceramics that are not as brittle as the ceramics being used by almost every single manufacturer out there. There’s a lot of things that can be done. It takes supply chain management, understanding the technology and having strong solid teams of scientists and doctors that know this stuff much better than anyone else in the industry does, and leveraging their expertise.
Green: You recently launched a safety feature for minors. Can you tell me more about that?
Mangold: Yes. Two weeks ago, we launched a new software application called PurGuard. PurGuard is a massive innovation and is the first of its kind that we’re aware of. It’s a piece of software that pairs with any device, whether it’s a disposable pod system or a 510 cartridge. You then pair it to your phone and take a picture of your government ID. Then the camera looks at your face, runs quick facial recognition and runs an age check through the largest age-checking platform API in the world. Then based on location and legal age of the user’s location – some states are 18 and different countries have different rules – it validates your ability in your market to be consuming that product. This technology works in 180 different countries.
Once that occurs and the device is ready for you to use, we have another feature that we’ve developed. There is an auto-lock feature that we have where if you’re a parent, like me, and you have kids in the house, you can turn your device to auto-lock right from your phone. When you walk away from your phone and are 10 feet away, your Bluetooth connection will break, and it will automatically lock the device and so your child can’t walk into your bedroom and take your device.
This technology is important to us. Consuming cannabis is horrible for the health of minors. There are serious mental effects on brain growth that occur from using cannabis at a young age because the brain is still developing up until about the age of 23 to 25. So, it’s not safe for them to be using. Of course, I’m sure we all smoked when we were in high school, but the ease of use of vape and the discretion, I think allows minors to use significantly more cannabis than previous generations did 20, 30, 40 years ago. It’s a massive problem right now and I think it’s just a matter of time before the FDA requires such protections. This industry can only survive if we protect minors. So, we’re getting ahead of the curve and setting the standard.
Green: What kind of hardware does PurGuard work with?
Mangold: PurGuard works with every single type of device that we manufacture: 510 thread cartridges, disposables, and pods. If it’s a 510-thread cartridge, the battery has to be a PurTec battery, and the cartridge has to be a PurTec cartridge. They communicate to each other through certain technologies, and it can even recognize what oils are in the cartridge or the pod or the disposable. Moreover, we can tell what strain it is, when it was manufactured, what the potency levels are and more. It records all the usage statistics. We’ve also proven with our hardware, the actual milligram contents being consumed per hit, or draw based on volume, and draw duration. We can track and report to people and say, “Hey, you’re consuming 100 milligrams of THC a day, that’s too high, you need to slow down and maybe go down to 50 milligrams a day.” That will be what is required as it is being required in the nicotine industry under the FDA pre-market tobacco applications (PMTA). When the FDA comes into cannabis, they’re going to want to see the same thing. They’re going to want to know that cannabis products are not promoting people to use more, and they are trying to get people to use less. It doesn’t mean stop using it, but use it in moderation, like everything in life. You shouldn’t be drinking a bottle of whiskey a day. You probably shouldn’t be smoking a pound of weed a day either. Everything in life is moderation and this application not only protects minors but also teaches us about our consumption habits.
Green: A theme here is “skating where the puck is going to be.” What kind of trends are you looking at right now in the industry?
Mangold: The biggest trend I see right now in the industry is disposables. We’ve seen that the trends in cannabis consumption trail behind the nicotine industry by 2-4 years. We see a lot of our customers and potential customers shifting into disposables and are now seeing a very large spike in sales of disposables. I think that’s a big trend, but with that comes another major issue: we now have lithium-ion batteries being thrown away at astonishing rates and going into landfills. PurTec has an answer for that that we’ll be launching here in the next four to six months That will be I think the biggest innovation in regards to eco-friendliness within the vape industry. That’s where I see things going right now.
Green: What are you most interested in learning about?
Mangold: The thing that interests me most, and what I’m most interested in learning about is regulations. Not the regulations themselves, but how regulations are drafted. I’ve sat in several meetings with rules committees for different regulatory bodies throughout the United States and it is laughable. I was recently in a state I’m not going to mention. I asked them what scientists and what doctors they have consulted with and they said none. I just found that dumbfounding. The state regulatory bodies are making decisions without doing due diligence and without bringing in subject matter experts in some cases.
I’m very interested in learning about how we can change our regulatory bodies. Taxpayers pay these salaries and their job at the end of the day is to protect consumers. I think that these cannabis regulatory bodies need to be way more involved with their state’s Department of Health, as well as with the FDA, and National Institute of Health and looking at this as a holistic approach. How do we protect consumers? This is a drug. It’s like anything else out there. If you’re selling tomatoes that were sprayed with a certain pesticide, you must do the research and you have to know what’s in that product before you start putting it in people’s hands. Otherwise, you may have people dying left and right. So, I’m very interested in learning more about regulatory bodies and how they need to evolve and hopefully I can help push them into evolving sooner rather than later.
Green: Great, that concludes the interview, Corey.
On June 29, 2021, Cannabis Industry Journal is hosting the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference. From Noon to 5 pm EST, you’ll get access to five veterans of the extraction market discussing a variety of topics related to the ins and outs of extracting cannabis and hemp.
Hear from subject matter experts who will share their perspectives on cannabis and hemp extraction, supercritical CO2 extraction, post-processing, risk management, hazards and controls, optimization, closed loop hydrocarbon extraction, machine learning algorithms and more.
Alex Hearding, Chief Risk Management Officer at the National Cannabis Risk Management Association (NCRMA) will kick things off with a session exploring the Hazards and Controls of Extraction with Liquified Petroleum Gases. Dr. Markus Roggen, Founder & CEO of Complex Biotech Discovery Ventures, will follow that up with a discussion surrounding the kinetics and thermodynamics of cannabis extraction.
Other talks from the Cannabis Extraction Virtual Conference include:
The Quest to Discover the Limits of CO2 Extraction
Jeremy Diehl, co-founder & CTO of Green Mill Supercritical
The Future of Cannabis Concentrates: Developments in Hydrocarbon Extraction and Manufacturing
Michelle Sprawls, Laboratory Director at CULTA
Process Scale Up in the Cannabis/Hemp Industry
Darwin Millard, Committee ViceChair on ASTM International’s D37.04 on Processing & Handling of Cannabis
Supercritical carbon dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules. Once the extract is obtained the crude is often subjected to an ethanol winterization process to remove chlorophyll, fats and waxes.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods. They recently announced a technology advance enabling winterization in-process, which has the potential to remove the need for ethanol winterization.
We spoke with Jeff Diehl, director of marketing at Green Mill Supercritical, to learn more about the new process. Jeff was working in the tech industry in San Francisco in 2017 when he was invited to join Green Mill by his cousin, Jeremy Diehl, who is the founder and CTO.
Aaron Green: Before we get to your new technology, can you explain what industry trends you are watching?
Jeff Diehl: A big thing that I watch is the premium extract space. More and more consumers are demanding higher premium extracts. They want differentiated products. They want products that are safe and that have some kind of meaningful connection to the specific plant from which they came. Right now, CO2 plays a small role in the market for those products. Most premium products are generated through hydrocarbon extraction. So, I am watching how people are using CO2 to create the next generation of safe, premium products.
Aaron: What is the normal process for a CO2 extraction today?
Jeff: The current CO2 extraction process generally consists of two major phases to producing your final extract. In the first phase, you have extraction where you get your crude product. The second phase is post-extraction where you do cleanup to get your refined oil. Within that post-extraction phase, most operations include an ethanol-based winterization process.
Aaron: What does the winterization step do, exactly?
Jeff: Winterization is about removing waxes. Your main extraction is considered crude because it’s got a lot of materials from the plant that you don’t want. The large majority of unwanted material is waxes. Winterization is the process of using a solvent, traditionally ethanol, to separate the waxes from the cannabinoids. There are multiple challenges inherent in ethanol-based winterization that introduce cost, time and product loss. It’s terribly inefficient. Plus, there will always be residual ethanol left in your final product, and that’s not something consumers appreciate.
Aaron: You’ve recently announced a new process at Green Mill that moves the winterization step into the supercritical CO2 equipment. Can you explain how that works?
Jeff: With our process, which we call Real-Time Winterization, there is no ethanol involved in winterization anymore. It is all done with CO₂ during the primary extraction. That’s the major advance of our process and although it has been attempted before, no one has succeeded at doing it in a viable way. You take a process which is normally four days – one day for CO2 extraction and three days for ethanol winterization – and you do it all in less than a day. We have automated software, sensors and pumps that makes this all possible.
Aaron: How does the quality of the resulting product compare with the new process?
Jeff: You can see the difference right away, if you’re at all familiar with extraction. It just looks clean and bright. Lab analysis has been very positive thus far, but we continue to run tests. Our R&D team has done multiple tests, mostly on hemp and CBD. That’s because we don’t have a license for THC. We’re currently engaging with a licensed partner so that we can collect more data on THC-containing products, so we can give exact numbers. But with CBD, we’ve done multiple tests to validate the method and the technology, and are seeing consistently excellent results in regards to both purity of the product and efficiency of the process.
Aaron: How do yields compare between the processes?
Jeff: From the data that we’ve seen in the industry, it looks like when you winterize with ethanol, you leave anywhere from 5 to 10% of your cannabinoids behind in the waxes. That’s just lost. With Real-Time Winterization using CO2 we have seen recovery rates as high as 99%. We are continuing to investigate that result with testing to make sure it was not an outlier, but in any case, recovery rates look promising.
Aaron: One of the other issues with ethanol is taxes and the ability to find food grade supply. Do you have any perspective you can share on that?
Jeff: There are a number of advantages to moving away from ethanol. The sheer quantity of ethanol is a factor. There are a lot of regulations and fire requirements around managing large quantities of ethanol. The ethanol winterization process itself is not just one process. There are multiple stages, from mixing, to freezing, to filtering, to removing the solvent. These are all opportunities for things to go wrong, so you’re always managing those risks. Multiple large pieces of equipment, including fume hoods, filter skids, cryo freezers and rotary evaporators, are expensive and require heavy management.
I think Elon Musk said the best process is no process. Anytime in an industrial process when you can remove steps in the process, that’s the direction you want to go in. And, that’s what we’ve done. With this recent work, we have effectively removed post processing for certain categories of end product.
Aaron: Do you have any patents on the new process?
Jeff: We have a patent pending on both the method and the equipment, which is allowing us to talk about this as much as we are.
Aaron: So, how does this work if somebody already owns an existing piece of Green Mill equipment? Is this something that can be retrofitted? Is it a software upgrade?
Jeff: There are two components. One is an equipment upgrade, which can be done retroactively for existing customers, and one is a methodology upgrade, which we assist our customers with. The automation software inherently can handle the settings that you need to run the methodology. In fact, it’s that software and the rest of our existing tech stack, the proprietary pump, the triple inline fractionation, the precision and stability of the overall system, that is what made this winterization advance possible.
Aaron: Where are you rolling this out first? And do you plan to go international?
Jeff: International is definitely in the plan, since we’ve already sold systems abroad. We are currently getting ready to announce the opening of our beta program with the new technology. So, we’re not ready to sell this widely at this time, but we are taking submissions from companies that want to get in early and join us at the forefront of CO₂ extraction innovation.
Aaron: Okay, great. Thanks Jeff, that’s the end of the interview.
Remediation of delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol (d9-THC) has become a hot button issue in the United States ever since the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) released their changes to the definitions of marijuana, marijuana extract, and tetrahydrocannabinols exempting extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing 0.3% or less d9-THC on a dry weight basis from the Controlled Substances Act. That is because, as a direct consequence, all extracts and tetrahydrocannabinols of a cannabis plant containing more than 0.3% d9-THC became explicitly under the purview of the DEA, including work-in-progress “hemp extracts” that because of the extraction process are above the 0.3% d9-THC limit immediately upon creation.
The legal ramifications of these changes to the definitions on the “hemp extracts” marketplace will not be addressed. Instead, this article focuses on the amount of d9-THC that is available in the plant material prior to extraction and tracks a “hemp extract” from the point it falls out of compliance to the point it becomes compliant again and stresses the importance of accurate track-n-trace protocols at the processing facility. The model developed to support this article was intended to be academic and was designed to follow the d9-THC portion of a “hemp extract” through the lifecycle of a typical CO2-based extract from initial extraction to THC remediation. A loss to the equipment of 2% was used for each step.
For this exercise, a common processing scenario of 1000 kg of plant material at 10% cannabidiol (CBD) and 0.3% d9-THC by weight was modeled. This amount, depending on scale of operations, can be a facility’s total capacity for the day or the capacity for a single run. 1000 kg of plant material at 0.3% d9-THC has 3 kg of d9-THC that could be extracted, purified, and diverted into the marketplace. CO2 has a nominal extraction efficiency of 95%, meaning some cannabinoids are left behind in the plant material. The same can be said about the recovery of the extract from the equipment. Traces of extract will remain in the equipment and this little bit of material, if unaccounted for, can potentially open an operator up to legal consequences. Data for the initial extraction is shown in Image 1.
As soon as the initial extract is produced it is out of compliance with the 0.3% d9-THC limit to be classified as a “hemp extract”, and of the 3 kg of d9-THC available, the extract contains approx. 2.8 kg, because some of the d9-THC remains in the plant material and some is lost to the equipment.
Dewaxing via Winterization and Solvent Removal
Dewaxing a typical CO2 extract via winterization is a common process step. For this exercise, a wax content of 30% by weight was used. A process efficiency of 98% was attributed to the wax removal process and it was assumed that 100% of the loss can be accounted for in the residue recovered from the equipment rather than in the removed waxes. Data for the winterization and solvent recovery are shown in Image 2 and 3.
Two things occur during winterization and solvent removal, non-target constituents are removed from the extract and there is compounded loss from multiple pieces of process equipment. These steps increase the concentration of the d9-THC portion of the extract and produce two streams of noncompliant waste.
Decarboxylation & Devolatilization
Most cannabinoids in the plant material are in their acid form. For this exercise, 90% of the cannabinoids were considered to be acid forms. Decarboxylation is known to produce a mass difference of 87.7%, i.e. the neutral forms are 12.3% lighter than the acid forms. Heat was modeled as the primary driver and a process efficiency of 95% was used for the conversion rate during decarboxylation. To simplify the model, the remaining 5% acidic cannabinoids are presumed destroyed rather than degraded into other compounds because the portion of the cannabinoids which get destroyed versus degrade into other compounds varies from process to process.
Devolatilization is the process of removing low-molecular weight constituents from an extract to stabilize it prior to distillation. Since the molecular constituents of cannabis resin extracts vary from variety to variety and process to process, the extracts were assumed to consist of 10% volatile compounds. The model combines the decarboxylation and devolatilization steps to account for complete decarboxylation of the available acidic cannabinoids and ignores their weight contribution to the volatiles collected during devolatilization. Destroyed cannabinoids result in an amount of loss that can only be accounted for through a complete mass balance analysis. Data for decarboxylation and devolatilization are shown in Image 4.
As the extract moves along the process train, the d9-THC concentration continues to increase. Decarboxylation further complicates traceability because there is both a known mass difference associated with the process and an unknown mass difference that must be calculated and justified.
A two-pass distillation was modeled. On each pass a portion of the extract was removed to increase the cannabinoid concentration in the recovered material. Average data for distilled “hemp extracts” was used to ensure the model did not over- or underestimate the concentration of the cannabinoids in the distillate. The variables used to meet these data constraints were derived experimentally to match the model to the scenario described and are not indicative of an actual distillation. Data for distillation is shown in Image 5.
After distillation, the d9-THC concentration is shown to have increased by 874% from the original concentration in the plant material. Roughly 2.2 kg of the available 3 kg of d9-THC remains in the extract, but 0.8 kg of d9-THC has either ended up in a waste stream or walking out the door.
Chromatography – THC Remediation Step 1
Chromatography was modeled to remove the d9-THC from the extract. Because there are several systems with variable efficiency rates at being able to selectively isolate the d9-THC peak from the eluent stream, the model used a 5% cut-off on the front-end and tail-end of the peak, i.e. 5% of the material before the d9-THC peak and 5% of the material after the d9-THC peak is assumed to be collected along with the d9-THC. Data for chromatography is shown in Image 6.
After chromatography, a minimum of three products are produced, compliant “hemp extract”, d9-THC extract, and noncompliant residue remaining in the equipment. The d9-THC extract modeled contains 2.1 kg of the available 3 kg in the plant material, and is 35% d9-THC by weight, an increase of 1335% from the distillation step and 11664% from the plant material.
CBN Creation – THC Remediation Step 2
For this exercise, the d9-THC extract was converted into cannabinol (CBN) using heat rather than cyclized into d8-THC, but a similar model could be used to account for this scenario. The conversion rate of the cannabinoids into CBN through heat degradation alone is low. Therefore, the model assumes half of the available cannabinoids in the d9-THC extract are converted to CBN. The entirety of the remaining portion of the cannabinoids are assumed to convert to some form of degradant rather than a portion getting destroyed. Data for THC destruction is shown in Image 7.
Only after the CBN cyclization step has completed does the product that was the d9-THC extract become compliant and classifiable as a “hemp extract.”
Throughout the process, from initial extraction to the final d9-THC remediation step, loss occurs. Of the 3 kg of d9-THC available in the plant material only 2.1 kg was recovered and converted to CBN. 0.9 kg was either lost to the equipment, destroyed in the process, attributable to the mass difference associated with decarboxylation, or was never extracted from the plant material in the first place. All of these potential areas of product loss should be identified, and their diversion risk fully assessed. Not every waste stream poses a risk of diversion, but some do; having a plan in place to handle waste the DEA considers a controlled substance is essential. Without a track-n-trace program following the d9-THC and identifying the potential risk of diversion would be impossible. The point of this is not to instill fear, instead the intention is to shed light on a very real issue “hemp extract” producers and state regulators need to understand to protect themselves and their marketplace from the DEA.
More and more we are seeing the development of proprietary hardware platforms in cannabis. With proprietary technology in hand, manufacturers often lean on MSOs, LPs and other brand partners to grow their business through existing sales channels.
We spoke with Mike McDonald, President and CEO at Ammonite, to learn more about the history of the Dablicator™ platform and Ammonite’s North American brand partner strategy. Mike formed Ammonite as a spin-off company from Jetty Extracts after getting to know the founders in a real estate transaction. Prior to Ammonite, Mike was an operator in the manufacturing and product development space, having helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand as well as growing and eventually selling the Atlas Snowshoe Company to K2 Sports.
Aaron: How did you get involved in cannabis?
Mike: Well, like a lot of folks in the industry, my background is pretty eclectic. I come primarily from an operator’s perspective – I’ve been in manufacturing, product development and company growth for my whole career. I lived in Taiwan for several years and helped to launch the Giant bicycle brand worldwide. I was also involved with a ski business that was started at Stanford as a thesis project called Atlas Snowshoe Company. Fast-forward, we built it into the largest snowshoe brand and activity in the US and later sold it to K2 Sports. So, I’ve always been involved in the growth of product-related businesses.
I’ve also done some real estate development as well; I actually sold our building to the Jetty guys, which is how we met. In that process, I got involved with their company, helped Jetty reorganize its business model, raise some money, and then just got addicted to the whole industry and really found it fascinating. I liked the team at Jetty and couldn’t resist jumping in, and now I’ve been full-time in the business for over three years.
Aaron: How did you get involved in Ammonite?
Mike: Ammonite is actually a spin out company from Jetty Extracts, which is one of the largest brands in California. Our main Ammonite product is called the Dablicator™ Oil Applicator, which was originally invented at Jetty as a medical device for cancer patients. We saw a big demand for it as a private label partnership product, so we decided to spin out a separate hardware company and really focus on developing unique IP and CBD and cannabis related hardware.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Mike: Certainly the MSOs of the world are really expanding and the top three to five are making a mark with growth and more sophistication in the market. I think the social equity movement is really a big component that we’re all excited about in the industry. You’re seeing the larger players really put their money where their mouth is around that. We’ve always been a big part of that in California.
Specifically, regarding trends in the cannabis space, Colorado and California are probably the two most mature markets. We generally say what’s happening in California and Colorado eventually make their way out to the rest of the world. Vaping was invented in California and Colorado, and now it’s a huge part of the business where before, four or five years ago, the market was mostly flower-centric.
There’s a trend away from inhalables, with more awareness around lung-related illnesses and of course COVID, so we’re seeing a big growth in edibles, drinks and so forth. Interestingly enough, although it’s an inhalable, infused pre-rolls are a big growth sector as well. Jetty is actually launching an infused pre-roll program in February.
Folks are looking for ways to get their medicine without smoking – and this has definitely led to a growth in the oil application business. Oil application has traditionally been delivered via a syringe. Dablicator™ oil applicator is essentially an improved, more convenient syringe. On the medical side, patients have been taking oil sublingually, putting it in food and drink and so forth for years because a lot of them can’t smoke. As that trend transfers over to the adult use market, oil application is becoming really big. You can take it sublingually; you can put it in your food or beverage. On the recreational side, you can add it to your loose flower or joints, or of course, dab it directly onto your rig via the heat resistant tip.
Further, you’re probably familiar with a lot of these portable dab rigs that are taking off, like the G Pen Roam and the Puffco Peak and a variety of others. So now you can dab on the go with your standard wax and shatter in a jar. It’s just not the most convenient way if you’re up on a hike or on a mountain bike ride. So now, with a portable dab rig and something like the Dablicator™ oil applicator, you can have a really convenient mess-free way to enjoy cannabis. The big growth in concentrates and areas that aren’t necessarily inhalables is where our product hardware really fits in.
Aaron: How did you come up with the idea for the Dablicator?
Mike: The Jetty team had a friend that had brain cancer. He was doing a lot of chemotherapy and was having trouble eating and keeping weight on and he couldn’t smoke. So, the guys at Jetty began to bring him cannabis oil, which he was able to use ingesting it from a spoon initially and it really helped him with his pain, his anxiety and his appetite. In that process, we realized that there wasn’t really a great way to deliver oil. Syringes were there, but they were kind of sketchy and they weren’t convenient.
So, the Jetty team developed a better mousetrap. Several iterations later, this Dablicator™ product was ready for patients. In fact, it became a big part of the Jetty Shelter Project, a non-profit where the team delivers cannabis to cancer patients, and it was a very much sought-after product delivery device in that world. So, it was developed inside of a need on the medical side and it’s really sort of grown inside the expansion on the adult-use side.
Aaron: Can you explain how the Dablicator™ oil applicator works from a perspective of form and function?
Mike: Pre-Dablicator™ you would use a syringe type product – for direct oil application, sublingual application, or as an add on to your flower. The difference between Dablicator™ oil applicator and a traditional syringe is that Dablicator™ is a twist and plunge product. Imagine a pen filled with oil, but instead of inhaling it, you’re able to dispense it through a tip that is heat resistant, which means you can apply directly to your dab rig nail. You’re able to put it in your pocket without fear of cannabis oil leakage. It’s discreet, precise, compact and portable.
Aaron: How does the user dose using Dablicator™ oil applicator?
Mike: Basically, there’s measurements on the plunger of 55 milligrams apiece – one click is 55 milligrams, and you can dispense as many clicks as you like. What’s cool about the product itself is if you’ve clicked too many times accidentally, you can back it off and the excess oil won’t dispense. You can go to dablicator.com and see demo videos as well.
Aaron: Dablicator™ oil applicator started as a Jetty Extracts spin-off. I see you are now white labeling for other oil brands. How do you go about selecting your partners?
Mike: We call it our brand partner program. It’s not too dissimilar to what other hardware manufacturers, like PAX and GPen, are doing. We’ve got a patented and innovative device where our brand partners, MSOs and leading brands throughout the US and Canada, can take their existing vape and tincture oils and offer them in Dablicator™ oil applicator hardware.
Our focus is signing up major, well respected brands and MSOs on to the “platform,” meaning they are able to immediately offer between six and ten new SKUs to their consumers. They take their existing oils, put them into a custom branded Dablicator™ hardware unit and add their custom branded packaging. It’s a full turnkey solution. For example, one of our partners, 710 Labs, is developing their RSO and were shopping for a delivery method specifically geared towards medical patients. Within eight weeks, we had a custom program for them and delivered hardware, and we assisted on the packaging front as well.
Our partners have to be reputable folks that are interested in developing or delivering oil in a unique and innovative way. Frankly, our early partners are those that see where the growth is. 710 Labs is on the platform, as well as Surterra in Florida, Ancient Roots in Ohio, and we’ve got multiple conversations going to some of the other MOSs and the LPs in Canada.
Aaron: Are the brand partners loading the oil applicator themselves?
Mike: We customize the product for them and then ship them unassembled and empty. In their lab, they use the same machinery and equipment they use to fill their vape cartridges. They then fill their Dablicator™, assemble it, package it and ship it out just like any other product that they’re processing and manufacturing.
Aaron: What kind of oils are suitable for Dablicator™?
Mike: Pretty much any oil that’s going into a vape cart is suitable and then some. Some of our customers, including Jetty, started out with a THC distillate. Live resin is becoming a big product category in California as well as solventless oils. Dablicator™ oil applicator can accommodate everything from distillate to live resin to solventless to RSO and even full spectrum CBD. If it can flow, if it doesn’t crystallize up like shatter and sugars and diamonds, you can put it into Dablicator™, even the thickest of oils. It’s designed to contain any kind of liquids that are flammable.
Aaron: What geographies are you currently in?
Mike: We’re in multiple states throughout the US and actually just signed up with an LP in Canada. We only launched the program in August of 2020, and today we’ve got partners California, Colorado, Ohio, Arizona, Missouri, Florida, soon to be Michigan, Illinois, and throughout Canada.
Aaron: Any plans for international expansion beyond North America?
Mike: We’re getting inquiries on a regular basis from all over the place, including internationally. We’re in conversations with some folks down in Brazil. Spain is actually a big cannabis market and we’re having some conversations with some folks there. The inquiries are coming in faster than we can process the relationships, but right now our major focus is on North America.
Aaron: What are your goals with Ammonite?
Mike: We are developing a category, right? So today, oil dispensing isn’t top of mind. Today, if you want oil, you go into a dispensary and say, “Hey, give me those syringes.” My goal is that a year from now, you can walk into Harborside in Oakland and you see a wall of different branded Dablicator™ oil applicators. The goal is to really turn the oil dispensing business into a category, and then position Dablicator™ oil applicator as the best and leading product in that category.
Aaron: What are you personally interested in learning more about?
Mike: Well, I’ve got two teenagers – two daughters, as a matter of fact, a freshman and a senior – and they’re being homeschooled right now. So that’s been quite an interesting development!
I think on the cannabis side, it’s just fascinating what it is as a business model. It’s the most recent multi-billion-dollar opportunity in consumer products. You only get a chance to participate in something like that maybe once in a lifetime. I’m really looking forward to seeing it become more adopted into the mainstream and it’s already becoming that way from a consumer perspective. I am watching the cannabis market become legal from a federal perspective, hoping that the social equity component of the industry really stays with it.
I’ve been in a lot of businesses over the years; I feel like one of the gray hairs in this business that is actually an operator versus someone who came over from the financial side. I am continuing to learn, grow and work with great people and this has been a really amazing experience for me.
Aaron: Okay, great. Mike, that’s the end of the interview. Thank you for your time today!
Any brewmaster from the more than 7,000 U.S. craft breweries will tell you one of two things: That their art is a science, or that their science is an art. The answer might depend upon the brewer’s individual approach, but a combination of experience, process, precise measurement and intuition is exactly what’s required to create great beer. In a very similar way, the cannabis industry has its own version of the brewmaster: Extraction technicians.
A cannabis extraction technician deploys knowledge from multiple science disciplines to apply industrial solvents, heat and pressure to plant matter through a variety of methods with the aim to chemically extract pure compounds. Extraction techs use their passion for the cannabis and hemp plants, combined with chemistry, physics, phytobiology and chemical engineering to help create a result that’s not quite art, but not quite completely science. By manipulating plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables, the extraction technician crafts the building block for what will become an edible, tincture or extract.
Similarly, brewmasters use their knowledge of multiple science disciplines like chemistry and microbiology, as well as different brewing processes and a variety of ingredients to develop creative recipes that result in consistent, interesting beers. The brewmaster’s work is both science and art, as well. And they also manipulate plant materials, pressure, heat and other variables to achieve their desired results.
“I would certainly consider brewing to be an art and a science, but it takes a very disciplined approach to create consistent, yet ever evolving beers for today’s craft market,” says Marshall Ligare, PhD. Research Scientist at John I. Haas, a leading supplier of hops, hop products and brewing innovations. “We work to ensure brewers can create something different with every new beer, as well as something that helps create an experience as well as a feeling.”
In both brewing and extraction, the art comes in the subjective experience of the craftsman and his or her ability to curate the infinite possibilities inherent in each process. However, both are a science in their requirement of establishing production methodologies that guarantee a consistent, reliable product experience every time to win customer loyalty (and regulatory compliance). In the same way hops determine recipes for beer flavors, the cannabis plant determines extraction recipes, especially considering the role that terpenoids play in the quality, flavor and effects of the end product.
The development of new and appealing cannabis products is beginning to mimic the vast variety of craft beers now found all over the world. In the same way beer connoisseurs seek out the perfect stout, lager or IPA, discriminating cannabis consumers now search for that gem of a single-origin, specialty-strain vaporizer oil or irresistible dab extract.
“I see an exciting new day for quality-focused, craft extraction that tells a story, not only of where the cannabis plant might have been grown and how, but also the care that was taken in the processing of that strain into smokable or edible oil,” says John Lynch, Founder of TradeCraft. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”
In either process, you’re essentially creating art with science. Each process works with different strains. Each is concerned with chemical and flavor profiles. Each has its own challenges. In both worlds, quality depends upon consistency. You’re creating art, but you need to replicate that art over and over – which can only occur with strict control of the process. Brewmasters seek control of things like yeast quantity and health, oxygen input, wort nutritional status and temperature, among other things. In their pursuit, extraction technicians seek to control temperature, pressure and flow rate–as well as all the ways these variables interact with each other. What enables this control in both efforts is the equipment used to achieve results.
“A modern brewhouse is very much like a scientific laboratory,” Ligare says. “Brewers treat their setup with the same care and attention a scientist gives to their lab equipment, and are equally concerned with precision, cleanliness and the purity of the result. With each new beer, they want to develop a process that can be controlled and replicated.”
The key to creating a precise process is to use instrument-grade extraction machinery that performs to specifications – and allows you to repeat the process again and again. The value of using high-quality instrumentation to manage and monitor either the brewing or extraction process cannot be overstated. Although it seems counterintuitive, this is where the “craft” comes into play for both brewing and cannabis extraction. Precise instrumentation is what allows the brewer or extraction “artist” to manipulate and monitor the conditions required to meet recipe standards. Along with the quality of the ingredients (hops, cannabis, hemp, etc.), the quality of the equipment utilized to create the product is one critical element impacting the end result. “Imagine the impact in the marketplace when product-makers figure out how to do seasonal one-offs where engaged connoisseurs are willing to pay a premium for the art behind limited releases.”
In cannabis extraction, a second crucial decision is determining which solvent is the best solution for the recipe you’re using and the end result you’re hoping to achieve. This decision is a part of the “craft” of extraction, and determined according to a combination of criteria. There’s no question that each solvent has a business case it serves best, and there is ongoingdebate about which approach is best. But overwhelmingly, the solvent that best serves the most business needs is CO2 due to its inherent versatility and ability to have its density tuned to target specific compounds.
“Control is what makes or breaks any craft product,” says Karen Devereux, Vice President of Northeast Kingdom Hemp. “We’re based in Vermont and love how Vermont is known for its quality craft beer, cheese and maple syrup. We wanted to bring that craft approach to hemp extraction, and everyone knows that any craft endeavor is focused on the details and getting them right again and again. You can’t do that without controlling every aspect of the process.”
Greater control of the process can also open up worlds of discovery. The inherent “tunability” of CO₂ enables the extraction technician to target specific compounds, enhancing the potential for experimentation and even whimsy. This can lead to entirely new products much in the way a brewer can control his process to create new, interesting beers.
American portrait photographer Richard Avedon famously declared that art is “about control,” describing the artistic process as “the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.” The same can be said for beer making and cannabis extraction. The more precisely you can control variables, the more options you’ll have for yourself and your customers. The more choices you’ll have with regard to different recipes and products. And the more loyalty you’ll ultimately generate among fans of your products.
Due to quick progressions in legalization, today’s cannabis industry bears little resemblance to the industry of five years ago. As the cannabis space gains mainstream acceptance, it resembles more “traditional” industries closely. In turn, how we consume cannabis has changed dramatically within this novel legal framework.
A brief visit to a cannabis dispensary quickly illuminates just how much the industry has changed in the past few years.
Within the dynamic of modern cannabis, perhaps no vertical has seen the same advancements as cannabis extracts. It’s precisely the growth of the concentrate category that has given rise to the many branded products that define the legal market.
To give a clear picture of how advancements in extraction have stimulated the concentrate category’s growth, we put together this brief exploration.
Standards & Technology
Before legalization, the production of cannabis extracts was a shady affair done in clandestine and often dangerous ways. Especially concerning BHO (Butane Hash Oil), home-based laboratories have long since been notorious fire hazards. Even more, with a total lack of regulation, black-market extracts are infamous for containing harmful impurities.
In the few short years that cannabis has been legal in Nevada, Washington and other states, extract producers have adopted standards and technology from more professional arenas. By borrowing from the food and pharmaceutical industries, concentrate companies have achieved excellence undreamed of a decade ago.
Good Manufacturing Practices
One of the essential elements in the extracts vertical advancements is the adoption of good manufacturing practices. According to the World Health Organization website, “Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) is that part of quality assurance which ensures that products are consistently produced and controlled to the quality standards appropriate to their intended use.”
When adult-use cannabis was legalized in markets such as Colorado, cannabis companies were able to come out of the shadows and discuss GMPs with legit businesses. In doing so, they implemented professional controls on extract manufacturing in accordance with “quality standards” of state regulatory agencies.
Supercritical CO2 Extraction
As cannabis businesses adopted GMP from other industries, extract producers also embraced more sophisticated technology. Of these, supercritical CO2 has pushed the cannabis concentrates vertical into the future.
According to the equipment manufacturer Apeks Supercritical, “CO2 is considered to be a safer method of extraction because the solvent is non-volatile. The extract is purer because no trace of the solvent is left behind. It is also versatile and helps protect sensitive terpenes, by allowing cold separation.” By deriving methods from food production, supercritical equipment manufacturers have given cannabis companies a viable option for the commercial production of extracts.
Supercritical technology has helped push the concentrates vertical forward by providing a clean and efficient way to produce cannabis extracts. Nonetheless, supercritical CO2 equipment is highly sophisticated and carries a hefty price tag. Producers can expect to pay well over $100,000 for commercial supercritical CO2 extraction setup.
Just as standards and technology have evolved in the cannabis extracts vertical, we have also seen products rapidly mature. Notably, the legal environment has allowed manufacturers to exchange ideas and methods for the first time. In turn, this dialogue has led to the development of new products, like isolates and live resin.
Just as the name implies, isolates are concentrates made from a singular, pure cannabinoid. In today’s market, CBD isolates have grown increasingly popular because people can consume pure CBD without ingesting other cannabinoids or plant materials, including the legal 0.3% THC found in hemp.
Isolates are made by further purifying cannabis extracts in the process of purification, filtration and crystallization. As seen with other concentrates, isolates are used as the base for many cannabis products, such as gummies.
There is also growing interest in CBG isolate, which is another non-psychoactive cannabinoid when consumed orally.
The cannabis concentrate live resin has taken the industry by storm over the past few years. Live resin is a form of extract that is originally sourced from freshly harvested and frozen cannabis plants. The primary selling point behind this extract is the fact that fresh flowers produce much more vibrant aromas and flavors than dried cannabis. Interestingly, this pungency is tied to the preservation of terpenes in live resin.
To make live resin, producers “flash freeze” fresh cannabis plants immediately after harvest. Valuable cannabinoids and terpenes are then extracted from the fresh, frozen plant material using hydrocarbon solvents. This whole process is done at extremely cold temperatures, ensuring no thermal degradation to the precious and volatile terpenes.
In lieu of these intricate steps to preserve the flower and extracts, live resin has continuously gained popularity. Namely because vaping with live resin is the best way to sample fresh cannabis terpene profiles in its most authentic fashion
It is amazing to see how much cannabis extracts have grown and progressed with legalization. Due to such amazing advancements in standards, technology, and products, the concentrates category has exploded on the dispensary scene. In today’s market, flowers have been largely sidelined in favor of concentrate-based products like gummies. These products now adorn dispensary shelves in beautiful packaging replete with purity and testing specifications.
It’s an often-overlooked fact that the purity standards of the legal extracts have made reliable cannabis brands possible in the first place. You cannot develop a cannabis brand without consistent products that customers can rely on; all things considered, it can be said that advancements in extraction have not only stimulated the concentrate category but the entire industry as we know it today.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extraction is a processing technique whereby CO2 is pressurized under carefully controlled temperatures to enable extraction of terpenes, cannabinoids and other plant molecules.
Green Mill Supercritical is a Pittsburgh-based manufacturing and engineering company focused on cannabis and hemp extraction. The company offers a range of CO2 extraction equipment where users can tune and control their extraction methods.
We spoke with Wes Reynolds, CEO of Green Mill Supercritical. Wes recently joined Green Mill as CEO and investor in the company after a long career at the Coca-Cola Company in senior sales and general management roles.
Aaron Green: Wes, thank you for taking the time to chat today. How did you get involved in Green Mill?
Wes Reynolds: I came out of a 20-year career at Coca-Cola, where I lived and worked around the world. I was a sales and general management guy with Coke, and learned a lot about running businesses and how to drive growth. I left Coke in 2017. After that successful career I wanted to be in the cannabis space. I felt like cannabis was a growing space with a lot of opportunity and a lot of misperceptions out there, particularly around the foundations of what I would call the “evil reputation” of cannabis. I just found that abhorrent and wanted to be part of changing it.
So I ran the Florida operations for Surterra, which is now called Parallel, for a year out of Tampa, and we did a great job of growing that business in Florida. As the president of the Florida operation for Surterra, I saw everything seed-to-shelf for the industry. We had a 300,000-square-foot greenhouse in Central Florida, we had dispensaries, we had all the production, distribution and all the marketing. I was really able to learn the industry top to bottom.
When I left Surterra, I started looking at various investment opportunities and thinking about what I might want to do next. I came across Green Mill out of Pittsburgh, and was really impressed with the technology that they had put together. Having run a company where we used CO2 extraction, I had experiences with systems that didn’t work when they were supposed to or didn’t work the way they were promised, which led to lots of downtime, lots of frustration and lots of babysitting. I was impressed with Green Mill’s engineering approach and decided that I’d like to be involved with them. I originally considered just being an investor, but more and more conversations led to a greater understanding of some basic business administrative needs that they had as well. One thing led to another and I agreed to come on as the CEO, and I’m also an investor.
I’m excited about what we’re doing at Green Mill. I think that bar none, we make the best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment out there. We continue to innovate on that every day. We want to push CO2 beyond known limits, which is our stated goal as a company. We believe in CO2 and we’re living our goal in that we really are pushing it beyond known limits. There are new things we’re uncovering every day where we go, “Oh, my God, I didn’t know we can do that with CO2!” So, that’s kind of fun.
Aaron: Can you tell me just a high-level overview of how CO2 extraction works?
Wes: A supercritical CO2 extraction system is a collection of extraction vessels and fractionation vessels or collection vessels. In our case fractionation because we’re doing multiple collections through a single run. Then you need a system of pumps and valves and tubing, etc. to move the solvent in a supercritical state through the packed biomass, and then move the extracted compounds into a set of collection vessels. It sounds very easy. But the key to supercritical CO2 extraction is controlling temperature, flow rate and pressure. The better you can control temperature, flow rate and pressure, the more precise of an outcome you’re going to get. For example, say you run a three-hour extraction run, and you want to run it at 3500 psi. Well, you know, a competitive system might fluctuate 300 to 400 psi on either side of 3500. Whereas our system currently fluctuates more like five to 10 psi on either side of the 3500. So, there is much more control and precision.
Our whole goal, when we’re talking about pushing CO2 beyond known limits, is how do we continue to chase that holy grail of perfect control of temperature, flow rate and pressure? One of our advances so far is a proprietary pump, for example, that’s a liquid displacement pump that we engineer and build. It ensures a very even and consistent flow, independent of the pressure setting. So, that flow rate doesn’t change in our system compared to what you would see with another system. It sounds like a minor thing, except that at the end of a run, if you expected to get a certain set of molecules, you’re going to get a different set of molecules if your temperature and flow rate and pressure are varying, because what you’re doing is disrupting the density of the CO2 as it flows.
It’s about building a system that is precise in that way, I think, that requires enormously skilled engineering effort and design effort on the front end, and then requires us to have advanced production and manufacturing capabilities in our shop in Pittsburgh. Our customers are clearly impressed with the levels of consistency that they’re getting out of their system.
Aaron: You talked about precision and consistency as two items. Is there anything else that makes Green Mill different?
Wes: I’m a brand guy. I believe in brands. I came out of a 20-year Coca-Cola career.
The way that the cannabis industry is going in total, in my opinion, is the consumer is going to get more and more discerning along the way. Up until this point, everybody thinks “oh, we have THC and CBD and we have intensity.” But the more sophisticated and educated consumers get, the more discerning they’re going to be about what products they want to put in their bodies.
What makes Green Mill different is that we’re building a system that allows the operator of that system to create differentiated products for the marketplace. So, it’s not simply “CBD is CBD.” It’s: what plant did you start with? How can you maintain as many of the characteristics of that plant as possible?
We’re going to create the most sophisticated tool possible to allow the operator to create products that can be differentiated in the marketplace for a discerning consumer at a premium price. That way, you can create a market where there might not have been a market before, instead of just “hey, I’ve got X pounds of biomass that I need to extract. Give me your bluntest instrument and let me extract.”
We currently make five different systems. First is the SFE Pro. We make a seven and a half liter and a 10-liter version, with two-vessel configurations of each of those. Then we have what we call a Parallel Pro, which has four 10-liter vessels and two pumps, with two streams running parallel to each other and emptying into shared collectors. It doubles the extraction rate, and you don’t expand the footprint very much. But 10-liter vessels are the biggest vessels we use. Because when you go too large with the vessel, you are giving up something in terms of the ability to control temperature, flow rate and pressure. Your efficiency starts to drop with higher vessel volume.
One of the things that makes Green Mill different is our extraction rate. Our Parallel Pro can do 145 pounds a day of biomass. We think that’s a significant amount, given the demand that’s out there for unique products. What we’re advocating for is multiple extraction systems instead of giant permanent installations of extraction systems, that end up limiting your flexibility. Big systems also prevent you from creating redundancies in your operating system. So, when your extraction system goes down, you’re done. Versus in our universe, we would say, you might want to have three or four extraction systems in different locations, running different products. Our price points are such that that’s very doable.
Aaron: How does the breakdown look between your cannabis and hemp clients?
Wes: A lot of that is legislative frankly. It has to do with what the environment is like at the moment. About 60% of our customers are small hemp farmers. And then we have the other 40% in the cannabis space that are medical or adult use producers.
CO2 extraction has a lot of applications beyond cannabis. We have a couple of customers using our system for hops extraction, for example. We see an enormous opportunity out there for non-cannabis botanical extraction, but our primary focus is cannabis. That is what we’re designing this system to do.
We find that small hemp farmers love our system because it is reliable and very automated. We have proprietary software that operates the whole system. You load and run various “recipes,” at least we call them recipes. What you are doing is setting flow rate, setting temperatures, setting pressures, etc., then that proprietary software has an unbelievable ability to control everything through the process. I’ve talked to several different operators who have used other machines, and then found themselves on a Green Mill system and couldn’t believe how easy, but also feature-rich it was.
I talk about it like it’s like an oven, you know, you set the oven at 375 degrees. And a really good oven stays right at 375. You still need to be a good chef to be able to make that perfect cheesecake. But without that oven, your hands are tied, so you are constantly trying to check those, “is it still 375? I don’t know!” With our system, if it says 375, it holds at 375. So we’re pretty excited about that.
And we’re going to continue to innovate. For example, we have a proprietary heat exchanger that we use on our systems. It’s actually 3D printed stainless steel. It’s about a 20-pound piece of steel that’s been printed to have a special tubing shape in the center only possible with 3D printing that allows us to heat CO₂ very quickly.
Aaron: That’s very cool. I’m noticing a lot actually, the innovations in cannabis are creating these adjacent market opportunities in botanicals. So, I think that’s interesting you point that out. You mentioned terpenes are one of the things you collect out of the CO2 extraction. Can you talk about the crude that comes off and how people are either monetizing or formulating that crude?
Wes: Our goal is to produce the “purest crude” possible. So, we want “less crude” crude. I think that we’re at the beginning of this, Aaron. We’re nowhere near the end, which is what I find so exciting, because all of our innovation, all of our continued development and all of our experimentation is designed to keep thinking, how do we push this further and further and further and get a more refined crude.
We just welcomed Jesse Turner to our team as Director of R&D, who is a well-known extraction guy in the industry. He came from Charlotte’s Web and Willie’s Reserve, and has been doing independent consulting. He’s just a rock star. He’s already off and running on experimenting with different stuff.
I think that we are just at the beginning of seeing more and more of that opportunity to help people realize, “Oh, my gosh, I did not know you could do this!” Terpenes are a good example. I think we are only scratching the surface of what terpenes can do. I mean, a cannabis plant has 400 plus molecules and we know a good bit about probably 10 or 12 of them. So, what are we going to find out about the other 390? And as we do, the Green Mill system will be ideal for separating those molecules that we don’t know today are valuable. So, I think that’s part of what we’re chasing as well.
Aaron: So where do you see CO2 extraction fitting into the cannabis and hemp supply chain?
Wes: For any product on the market that is not a smokable flower it helps to have an extraction process. There may be some products that come out that we don’t know about yet that are not going to qualify in that category. Whether you are talking about vape cartridges, or lozenges, or gummy bears, or whatever it is, they are going to start with extract. I think what consumers want is zero adulteration of their product. So if you take any botanical product, and if it is GMO-free, does not have any pesticides, maybe it is all organic, etc. — there is real consumer appeal to that. Whether you agree with it or not, it is what consumers want.
We believe that we can continue to push CO2 so that there’s no requirement for introduction of any other materials than just CO2, which is a completely inert gas. It’s got no residual effect whatsoever on the product. If we get where we want to go, then eventually you are talking about a pure botanical experience.
Initial upfront capital is higher than you are going to see with ethanol and butane extraction solutions for the same size equipment, but ongoing operating costs of those are much higher, when you weigh it out over a period of time. I think what we are going to find is that people are going to keep coming to CO2 because they realize there are things they can do with it that they can’t do any other way.
The end consumer is really who we want to keep in mind. I think for a long time, this industry was very demand driven. “I have X acres of cannabis product, whether that’s hemp, sativa, indica, whatever it is, and I need to extract this many pounds a day over this period of time.” And we keep asking the question, well, who’s going to buy that product on the other side? What do you want it to look like when you put it out on the market? As opposed to how much raw plant matter do you have? What’s the demand? And that was a difficult conversation. We’re starting to see more people come around to that conversation now. But I think that’s the question we want to keep answering is how do we create those products that are differentiated in the marketplace and that can pass muster in any regulatory environment? People are going to want to know what’s in their product.
Aaron: What trends are you following in the industry?
Wes: As the CEO, I’m particularly interested in the overall development of the landscape of the industry in terms of who’s playing, who’s winning, what’s happening with legislation, MSOs versus SSOs. I’m also interested in the international environment. We have a good bit of interest from multiple countries that have either ordered Green Mill systems or are talking to us about Green Mill systems, including Canada and Latin American countries, some European countries, Australia and New Zealand.“We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.”
The trends that I’m particularly interested in are more on the business side of the equation, in terms of how this business is going to shake out particularly from a capitalization perspective, as banking laws continue to change, which is a big deal, and the legislative environment gets a little more predictable and a little more consistent.
Aaron: Okay, last question. So what are you personally interested in learning more about?
Wes: Everything, is the short answer! I constantly run this little challenge of trying to understand enough of the science. I’m not a scientist, I’m a sales guy. That was how I grew up: general management and sales. I’ve made my living over many years being wowed by the pros. Depending on the scientists and the very specialized folks to help provide the right answers to things. I’m fascinated by the chemistry and I’m fascinated by the mechanical engineering challenges of what we do at Green Mill. So, I’m always interested in learning about that.
I think there’s a need, and it is helpful to be able to talk about those things in language that the layperson can understand, as opposed to explaining everything in scientific language. I think what I am trying to do is help people put it into a language that they can get, but that is not simple. Language that is correlative to reality. I think there’s so much misunderstanding about how these things work and what’s happening. We’re really committed to educational efforts with a very rigorous scientific foundation, but in language that is approachable and people can understand.
Aaron: Okay, that’s it. Thank you for your time Wes!
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