In a press release published this week, AOAC International announced it has partnered with Signature Science, LLC as the test material provider for the new AOAC Cannabis/Hemp Proficiency Testing program. What makes this proficiency testing (PT) program so unique is that AOAC will be the only PT provider to offer actual cannabis flower as the matrix.
This month, the pilot round with twenty cannabis testing labs begins with hemp-only samples being shipped in early May. The first live round of the PT program is scheduled for November of this year and will offer participating labs the choice of cannabis flower samples or hemp samples.
The program will include one sample for cannabinoid and terpene profiles, moisture and heavy metals, as well as a second sample for pesticide residue testing. According to the press release, mycotoxins will be added to the mix soon.
The new PT program was developed by stakeholders involved with the AOAC Cannabis Analytical Science Program (CASP), including state regulatory labs, industry labs, state and federal agencies and accreditation bodies. Shane Flynn, senior director of AOAC’s PT program, says the program is a result of scientists coming to them with concerns about testing in the cannabis space. “AOAC has a long history of bringing scientists together to address emerging topics, so when stakeholders came to AOAC with their concerns and need for quality proficiency testing in the cannabis industry, AOAC acted,” says Flynn. “Stakeholders noted the analytical differences in testing cannabis versus hemp and had specific concerns around it and asked for a program that would provide actual cannabis samples in addition to hemp. This is truly a program that was created by the stakeholders, for the stakeholders.”
AOAC says they plan on introducing microbiology to the PT program, with microbial contamination tests in both cannabis and hemp samples. They are also considering adding additional matrices, like chocolate and gummies.
Signature Science is an ISO 17043 accredited proficiency test provider that also has a DEA-licensed controlled substances lab, making them an ideal candidate to partner with AOAC for the PT Program. They entered into a 3-year MoU with AOAC for the program. Their team developed and validated methods used to create the samples for the PT program at their DEA-licensed lab in Austin, Texas.
By Kelsey Cagle, Frank L. Dorman, Jessica Westland No Comments
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Sian Ferguson. https://www.healthline.com/health/hemp-vs-marijuana. August 27, 2020.
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.
Emerald Scientific now offers their customers PerkinElmer products, like their QSight® 420 Triple Quad system LC/MS, the Titan MPS™ Microwave Sample Preparation System, the Clarus® SQ 8 Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS) and the Flexar™ High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) system. This partnership also allows Emerald Scientific customers to utilize the PerkinElmer analytical methods and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for cannabis and hemp testing. That includes SOPs for things like sample preparation, acquisition methods and consumable use. They’ll also be able to shop for lab products like PerkinElmer’s chromatography columns, vials and sample prep products.
According to Greg Sears, vice president and general manager, Food and Organic Mass Spectrometry at PerkinElmer, the cannabis testing market is exploding and this will help labs get their equipment and necessities all in the same place. “With the cannabis and hemp markets continuing to grow rapidly and regulations strengthening, labs increasingly need streamlined access to best-in-class, user-friendly testing solutions geared toward the unique requirements of the industry,” says Sears. ““This collaboration with Emerald Scientific brings together leading cannabis analysis offerings in one place to help labs start up and expand more efficiently. In addition, we can build on the work we have done with Emerald around testing standardization which is important for the science of the industry.”
Kirsten Blake, Vice President of Emerald Scientific, says they are really excited about the partnership. “As regulations become more challenging, laboratory competition intensifies, and the science of the industry receives increasing focus, it is essential to align with organizations dedicated to improving both the quality and throughput of analytics,” says Blake. “After working with PerkinElmer to inform, educate, and advance the cannabis science industry around best practices, we see them as the industry leader for providing analytical instrumentation, methods and SOP’s. By adding their complementary solutions to our existing portfolio, we can now deliver complete packaged analytical solutions to the cannabis and hemp industries.”
The cannabis industry is growing exponentially, and the use of cannabis for medical purposes is being adopted across the nation. With this boom in cannabis consumers, there has been an increasing need for knowledge about the product.
The role of testing labs has become crucial to the process, which makes owning and operating a lab more lucrative. Scientists testing for potency, heavy metals, pesticides, residual solvents, moisture, terpene profile, microbial and fungal growth, and mycotoxins/aflatoxins are able to make meaningful contributions to the medical industry by making sure products are safe, while simultaneously generating profits and a return on investment.
Here are the key testing instruments you need to conduct these critical analyses. Note that cannabis analytical testing requirements may vary by state, so be sure to check the regulations applicable to the location of your laboratory.
The most important component of cannabis testing is the analysis of cannabinoid profiles, also known as potency. Cannabis plants naturally produce cannabinoids that determine the overall effect and strength of the cultivar, which is also referred to as the strain. There are many different cannabinoids that all have distinct medicinal effects. However, most states only require testing and reporting for the dry weight percentages of delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) and cannabidiol (CBD). It should be noted that delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (Δ9-THCA) can be converted to THC through oxidation with heat or light.
For potency testing, traditional high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is recommended and has become the gold standard for analyzing cannabinoid profiles. Look for a turnkey HPLC analyzer that delivers a comprehensive package that integrates instrument hardware, software, consumables and proven HPLC methods.
Heavy Metal Testing
Different types of metals can be found in soils and fertilizers, and as cannabis plants grow, they tend to draw in these metals from the soil. Heavy metals are a group of metals considered to be toxic, and the most common include lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury. Most labs are required to test and confirm that samples are under the allowable toxic concentration limits for these four hazardous metals.
Heavy metal testing is performed by inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). ICP-MS uses the different masses of each element to determine which elements are present within a sample and at what concentrations. Make sure to include accompanying software that provides assistant functions to simplify analysis by developing analytical methods and automatically diagnosing spectral interference. This will provide easy operation and analytical results with exceptionally high reliability.
To reduce running costs, look for a supporting hardware system that reduces the consumption of argon gas and electricity. For example, use a plasma ignition sequence that is optimized for lower-purity argon gas (i.e., 99.9% argon as opposed to more expensive 99.9999%).
The detection of pesticides in cannabis can be a challenge. There are many pesticides that are used in commercial cannabis grow operations to kill the pests that thrive on the plants and in greenhouses. These chemicals are toxic to humans, so confirming their absence from cannabis products is crucial. The number of pesticides that must be tested for varies from state to state, with Colorado requiring only 13 pesticides, whereas Oregon and California require 59 and 66 respectively. Canada has taken it a step further and must test for 96 pesticides, while AOAC International is developing methods for testing for 104 pesticides. The list of pesticides will continue to evolve as the industry evolves.
Testing for pesticides is one of the more problematic analyses, possibly resulting in the need for two different instruments depending on the state’s requirements. For a majority of pesticides, liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LCMS) is acceptable and operates much like HPLC but utilizes a different detector and sample preparation.
Pesticides that do not ionize well in an LCMS source require the use of a gas chromatography mass spectrometry (GCMS) instrument. The principles of HPLC still apply – you inject a sample, separate it on a column and detect with a detector. However, in this case, a gas (typically helium) is used to carry the sample.
Look for a LC-MS/MS system or HPLC system with a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer that provides ultra-low detection limits, high sensitivity and efficient throughput. Advanced systems can analyze more than 200 pesticides in 12 minutes.
For GCMS analysis, consider an instrument that utilizes a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer to help maximize the capabilities of your laboratory. Select an instrument that is designed with enhanced functionality, analysis software, databases and a sample introduction system. Also include a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for terpene profiles and residual solvent testing.
Residual Solvent Testing
Residual solvents are chemicals left over from the process of extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis plant. Common solvents for such extractions include ethanol, butane, propane and hexane. These solvents are evaporated to prepare high-concentration oils and waxes. However, it is sometimes necessary to use large quantities of solvent in order to increase extraction efficiency and to achieve higher levels of purity. Since these solvents are not safe for human consumption, most states require labs to verify that all traces of the substances have been removed.
Testing for residual solvents requires gas chromatography (GC). For this process, a small amount of extract is put into a vial and heated to mimic the natural evaporation process. The amount of solvent that is evaporated from the sample and into the air is referred to as the “headspace.” The headspace is then extracted with a syringe and placed in the injection port of the GC. This technique is called full-evaporated technique (FET) and utilizes the headspace autosampler for the GC.
Look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler, which can also be used for pesticide and terpene analysis.
Terpene Profile Testing
Terpenes are produced in the trichomes of the cannabis leaves, where THC is created, and are common constituents of the plant’s distinctive flavor and aroma. Terpenes also act as essential medicinal hydrocarbon building blocks, influencing the overall homeopathic and therapeutic effect of the product. The characterization of terpenes and their synergistic effect with cannabinoids are key for identifying the correct cannabis treatment plan for patients with pain, anxiety, epilepsy, depression, cancer and other illnesses. This test is not required by most states, but it is recommended.
The instrumentation that is used for analyzing terpene profiles is a GCMS with headspace autosampler with an appropriate spectral library. Since residual solvent testing is an analysis required by most states, all of the instrumentation required for terpene profiling will already be in your lab.
As with residual solvent testing, look for a GCMS instrument with a headspace autosampler (see above).
Microbe, Fungus and Mycotoxin Testing
Most states mandate that cannabis testing labs analyze samples for any fungal or microbial growth resulting from production or handling, as well as for mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi. With the potential to become lethal, continuous exposure to mycotoxins can lead to a buildup of progressively worse allergic reactions.
LCMS should be used to qualify and identify strains of mycotoxins. However, determining the amount of microorganisms present is another challenge. That testing can be done using enzyme linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) or matrix-assisted laser desorption/ionization time-of-flight mass spectrometry (MALDI-TOF MS), with each having their advantages and disadvantages.
For mycotoxin analysis, select a high-sensitivity LC-MS/MS instrument. In addition to standard LC, using an MS/MS selective detector enables labs to obtain limits of detection up to 1000 times greater than conventional LC-UV instruments.
For qPCR and its associated needs, look for a real-time PCR amplification system that combines thermal cyclers with optical reaction modules for singleplex and multiplex detection of fluorophores. These real-time PCR detection systems range from economical two-target detection to sophisticated five-target or more detection systems. The real-time detection platform should offer reliable gradient-enabled thermal cyclers for rapid assay optimization. Accompanying software built to work with the system simplifies plate setup, data collection, data analysis and data visualization of real-time PCR results.
Moisture Content and Water Activity Testing
Moisture content testing is required in some states. Moisture can be extremely detrimental to the quality of stored cannabis products. Dried cannabis typically has a moisture content of 5% to 12%. A moisture content above 12% in dried cannabis is prone to fungal growth (mold). As medical users may be immune deficient and vulnerable to the effects of mold, constant monitoring of moisture is needed. Below a 5% moisture content, the cannabis will turn to a dust-like texture.
The best way to analyze the moisture content of any product is using the thermogravimetric method with a moisture balance instrument. This process involves placing the sample of cannabis into the sample chamber and taking an initial reading. Then the moisture balance instrument heats up until all the moisture has been evaporated out of the sample. A final reading is then taken to determine the percent weight of moisture that was contained in the original sample.
Look for a moisture balance that offers intuitive operation and quick, accurate determination of moisture content. The pan should be spacious enough to allow large samples to be spread thinly. The halogen heater and reflector plate should combine to enable precise, uniform heating. Advanced features can include preset, modifiable measurement modes like automated ending, timed ending, rapid drying, slow drying and step drying.
Another method for preventing mold is monitoring water activity (aW). Very simply, moisture content is the total amount of water available, while water activity is the “free water” that could produce mold. Water activityranges from 0 to 1. Pure water would have an aW of 1.0. ASTM methods D8196-18 and D8297-18 are methods for monitoring water activity in dry cannabis flower. The aW range recommended for storage is 0.55 to 0.65. Some states recommend moisture content to be monitored, other states monitor water activity, and some states such as California recommend monitoring both.
As you can see, cannabis growers benefit tremendously from cannabis testing. Whether meeting state requirements or certifying a product, laboratory testing reduces growers’ risk and ensures delivery of a quality product. As medicinal and recreational cannabis markets continue to grow, analytical testing will ensure that consumers are receiving accurately
labeled products that are free from contamination. That’s why it is important to invest in the future of your cannabis testing lab by selecting the right analytical equipment at the start of your venture.
Editor’s Note: The following is based on research and studies performed in their Santa Cruz Lab, with contributions from Mikhail Gadomski, Lab Manager, Ryan Maus, Technical Services Analyst, Dr. Laurie Post, Director of Food Safety & Compliance, Andy Sechler, Lab Director, Toby Astill, Senior Business Development Leader at Perkin Elmer and Charles Deibel, President of Deibel Cannabis Labs.
Pesticides represent the leading cause of batch failures in the cannabis industry. They are also the hardest tests to run in the laboratory, even one equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. The best instruments on the market are HPLC and GC dual mass spectrometer detectors, called “HPLC-qqq”, “GC-qqq,” or just triple quads.
As non-lab people, we envision a laboratory that can take a cannabis sample, inject it into a triple quad and have the machine quickly and effortlessly print out a report of pesticide values. Unfortunately, this is far from reality. The process is much more hands on and complex.In the current chemistry lab, trained analysts have to first program the triple quads to look for the pesticides of concern; in cannabis pesticide testing, this is done by programming the first of two mass spectrometers to identify a single (precursor) mass that is characteristic of the pesticide in question. For BCC requirements in California, this has to be done for all 66 pesticides, one at a time.
Next, these precursor ions are degraded into secondary chemicals called the “product” ions, also called transition ions. The second of the two mass spectrometers is used to analyze these transition ions. This process is graphed and the resulting spectrum is analyzed by trained chemists in the lab, pesticide by pesticide, for all the samples processed that day. If the lab analyzes 10 samples, that translates to 660 spectra to analyze (66 pesticides x 10 samples). When looking at the spectra for each pesticide, the analysts must compare the ratios of the precursor ions to the product ions.
If these spectra indicate a given pesticide may be present, the chemists must then compare the ratios between the precursor and the products. If these ratios are not what is expected, then the analyst must perform confirmation testing to prove the precursor mass either is or is not the pesticide of concern. If the ratios are not what is expected, it means the molecule is similar to the pesticide in question, but may not be that pesticide. This confirmatory testing is key to producing accurate results and not failing batches when dealing with closely related chemicals. This process of analyzing spectra is done in all labs that are performing pesticide testing. In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods.
The need for this type of confirmation testing doesn’t happen all of the time, but when it does, it will take longer than our targeted three-day turn-around time. In the picture above, one precursor mass is ionized into several product masses; but only two are large enough to be used for comparison. In this hypothetical situation, two product masses are produced for every one precursor, the expected ion abundance ratio should be less than 30%. When performing any confirmatory testing, if the ion abundance ratio is >30%, it means the original precursor molecule was not the pesticide of concern. For example, if the ion abundance ratio was 50%, then the original molecule broke down into too many parts; it was not the pesticide we were looking for. This ion abundance ratio threshold was established by FANCO, the international organization that sets guidelines for all pesticide testing.
Methodology: In this fledgling industry, there are few published cannabis pesticide methods. The identification of the precursor mass and product ions are not always published, leaving labs to research which ions should be used. This adds to the potential for differences between lab results. Once selected, labs should validate their research, through a series of experiments to ensure the correct precursor and transition (product) ions are being used in the method.
Sample Preparation: Beyond the time-consuming work that is required to develop sound pesticide methods, the extraction step is absolutely critical for credible results. If the pesticides aren’t fully extracted from the cannabis product, then the results will be lower than expected. Sample preparations are often not standardized between labs, so unless a given extraction technique is validated for accuracy, there is the possibility for differences between labs.
Getting a Representative Sample
The current California recommended amount of sample is one gram of product per batch. Batch sizes can vary greatly and it is entirely likely that two different one gram samples can have two different results for pesticides. Has the entire plant been evenly coated with exactly the same amount of pesticide onto every square inch of its leaves? No, probably not. That is why it is imperative to take a “random” sample, by taking several smaller samples from different areas of the entire batch.
Sampling Plans: We can learn a lot from the manufacturing and sampling best practices developed by the food industry through the years. If a food manufacturer is concerned with the possibility of having a bacteria pathogen, like Salmonella, in their finished product, they test the samples coming off their production lines at a statistically relevant level. This practice (theory) is called the sampling plan and it can easily be adapted to the cannabis industry. The basic premise is that the more you test, the higher your likelihood of catching a contaminate. Envision a rectangular swimming pool, but instead of water, it’s filled with jello. In this gelatinous small pool, 100 pennies are suspended at varying levels. The pennies represent the contaminates.
Is the pool homogenized? Is jello evenly represented in the entire pool? Yes.
Is your concentrate evenly distributed in the extraction vessel? Yes. The question is, where are the pennies in that extraction vessel? The heavy metals, the microbial impurities and the pesticides should be evenly distributed in the extraction vessel but they may not be evenly represented in each sample that is collected. Unfortunately, this is the bane of the manufacturing industry and it’s the unfortunate reality in the food industry. If you take one random cup of jello, will you find the penny? Probably not. But it you take numerous 1 cup samples from random areas within the batch, you increase your chances of finding the contaminate. This is the best approach for sampling any cannabis product.
The best way to approve a batch of cannabis product is to take several random samples and composite them. But you may need to run several samples from this composite to truly understand what is in the batch. In the swimming pool example, if you take one teaspoon scoop, will you find one of the pennies? The best way to find one of the pennies is to take numerous random samples, composite them and increase the number of tests you perform at the lab. This should be done on any new vendor/cultivator you work with, in order to help establish the safety of the product.
By Dr. Zacariah Hildenbrand, Allegra Leghissa, Dr. Kevin A. Schug 2 Comments
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.
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.
 Breitmaier E., Terpenes: Flavors, Fragrances, Pharmaca, Pheromones. John Wiley & Sons 2006.
 Leghissa A., Hildenbrand Z. L., Schug K. A., A Review of Methods for the Chemical Characterization of Cannabis Natural Products. J. Sep. Sci.2018, 41, 398–415 .
 Benvenuto E., Misra B. B., Stehle F., Andre C. M., Hausman J.-F., Guerriero G., Cannabis sativa: The Plant of the Thousand and One Molecules. Front. Plant Sci2016, 719, DOI: 10.3389/fpls.2016.00019.
 Schug K. A., Sawicki I., Carlton D. D., Fan H.,Mcnair H. M.,Nimmo J. P., Kroll P.,Smuts J.,Walsh P., Harrison D., Vacuum Ultraviolet Detector for Gas Chromatography. Anal. Chem.2014, 86, 8329–8335 .
 Fan H.,Smuts J., Walsh P.,Harrison D., Schug K. A., Gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy for multiclass pesticide identification. J. Chromatogr. A2015, DOI: 10.1016/j.chroma.2015.02.035.
 Qiu C.,Smuts J., Schug K. A., Analysis of terpenes and turpentines using gas chromatography with vacuum ultraviolet detection. J. Sep. Sci.2017, 40, 869–877 .
 Leghissa A., Smuts J., Qiu C., Hildenbrand Z. L., Schug K. A., Detection of cannabinoids and cannabinoid metabolites using gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. Sep. Sci. Plus2018, 1.
 Bai L.,Smuts J., Walsh P., Fan H., Hildenbrand Z., Wong D., Wetz D., Schug K. A., Permanent gas analysis using gas chromatography with vacuum ultraviolet detection. J. Chromatogr. A2015,1388, 244–250 .
 Skultety L., Frycak P., Qiu C.,Smuts J., Shear-Laude L., Lemr K., Mao J. X., Kroll P., Schug K. A., Szewczak A., Vaught C., Lurie I., Havlicek V., Resolution of isomeric new designer stimulants using gas chromatography – Vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy and theoretical computations. Anal. Chim. Acta2017, 971, 55–67 .
 Bai L., Smuts J., Walsh P., Qiu C., McNair H. M., Schug K. ., Pseudo-absolute quantitative analysis using gas chromatography–vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy–a tutorial. Anal. Chim. Acta2017, 953, 10–22 .
 Schenk J., Nagy G., Pohl N. L. B., Leghissa A., Smuts J., Schug K. A., Identification and deconvolution of carbohydrates with gas chromatography-vacuum ultraviolet spectroscopy. J. Chromatogr. A2017, 1513, 210–221 .
 Van Opstaele F., De Causmaecker B., Aerts G., De Cooman L., Characterization of novel varietal floral hop aromas by headspace solid phase microextraction and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry/olfactometry. J. Agric. Food Chem.2012, 60, 12270−12281 .
 Hamm S., Bleton J., Connan J., Tchapla A., A chemical investigation by headspace SPME and GC-MS of volatile and semi-volatile terpenes in various olibanum samples. Phytochemistry2005,66, 1499–1514 .
 Aberl A., Coelhan M., Determination of volatile compounds in different hop Varieties by headspace-trap GC/MS-in comparison with conventional hop essential oil analysis. J. Agric. Food Chem.2012, 60, 2785−2792 .
Cannabis-testing laboratories have the challenge of removing a variety of unwanted matrix components from plant material prior to running extracts on their LC-MS/MS or GC-MS. The complexity of the cannabis plant presents additional analytical challenges that do not need to be accounted for in other agricultural products. Up to a third of the overall mass of cannabis seed, half of usable flower and nearly all extracts can be contributed to essential oils such as terpenes, flavonoids and actual cannabinoid content1. The biodiversity of this plant is exhibited in the over 2,000 unique strains that have been identified, each with their own pigmentation, cannabinoid profile and overall suggested medicinal use2. While novel methods have been developed for the removal of chlorophyll, few, if any, sample preparation methods have been devoted to removal of other colored pigments from cannabis.
Cannabis samples from four strains of plant (Purple Drink, Tahoe OG, Grand Daddy and Agent Orange) were hydrated using deionized water. Following the addition of 10 mL acetonitrile, samples were homogenized using a SPEX Geno/Grinder and stainless steel grinding balls. QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) non-buffered extraction salts were then added and samples were shaken. Following centrifugation, an aliquot of the supernatant was transferred to various blends of dispersive SPE (dSPE) salts packed into centrifugation tubes. All dSPE tubes were vortexed prior to being centrifuged. Resulting supernatant was transferred to clear auto sampler vials for visual analysis. Recoveries of 48 pesticides and four mycotoxins were determined for the two dSPE blends that provided the most pigmentation removal.
Seven dSPE blends were evaluated for their ability to remove both chlorophyll and purple pigmentation from cannabis plant material:
Based on the coloration of the resulting extracts, blends A, F and G were determined to be the most effective in removing both chlorophyll (all cannabis strains) and purple pigments (Purple Drink and Grand Daddy). Previous research regarding the ability of large quantities of GCB to retain planar pesticides allowed for the exclusion of blend G from further analyte quantitation3. The recoveries of the 48 selected pesticides and four mycotoxins for blends A and F were determined.
A blend of MgSO4, C18, PSA and Chlorofiltr® allowed for the most sample clean up, without loss of pesticides and mycotoxins, for all cannabis samples tested. Average recovery of the 47 pesticides and five mycotoxins using the selected dSPE blend was 75.6% were as the average recovery when including GCB instead of Chlorofiltr® was 67.6%. Regardless of the sample’s original pigmentation, this blend successfully removed both chlorophyll and purple hues from all strains tested. The other six dSPE blends evaluated were unable to provide the sample clean up needed or had previously demonstrated to be detrimental to the recovery of pesticides routinely analyzed in cannabis.
(1) Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2009)
(2) W. Ross, Newsweek, (2016)
(3) Koesukwiwat, Urairat, et al. “High Throughput Analysis of 150 Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables Using QuEChERS and Low-Pressure Gas Chromatography Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry.” Journal of Chromatography A, vol. 1217, no. 43, 2010, pp. 6692–6703., doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2010.05.012.
On Monday, August 28th, attendees of the Cannabis Science Conference descended on Portland, Oregon for a week of educational talks, networking and studying the science of cannabis. On Monday, Chalice Farms, an extracts and infused products company, hosted the full-day JCanna Boot Camp focused on a deep dive behind the scenes of a cannabis production facility. The Cannabis Science Conference, hosted by Josh Crossney, founder of JCanna, takes place August 28th to 30th.
Attendees were split into five groups where they listened to a variety of educational sessions and toured the facility. A track focused on cultivation, led by Autumn Karcey, president of Cultivo, Inc., detailed all things facility design for cannabis cultivation, including an in-depth look at sanitation and safety. For example, Karcey discussed HVAC cleanliness, floor-to-ceiling sanitation and the hazards associated with negative pressure. These principles, while applicable to most cultivating facilities, applies particularly to commercial-scale grows in a pharmaceutical setting.
During one session, Sandy Mangan, accounts manager at SPEX Sample Prep and Tristan DeBona, sales specialist at SPEX Sample Prep, demonstrated the basics of sample preparation for detecting pesticides in infused products, such as gummies. That required using their GenoGrinder and FreezerMill, which uses liquid nitrogen to make gummies brittle, then pulverizing them to a powder-like substance that is more conducive for a QuEChERS preparation.
Joe Konschnik, business development manager at Restek, Susan Steinike, product-marketing manager at Restek and Justin Steimling, an analytical chemist at Restek, gave a demonstration of a full QuEChERS extraction of a cannabis sample for pesticide analysis, with attendees participating to learn the basics of sample preparation for these types of tests.
Following those were some other notable talks, including a tour of the extraction instruments and equipment at Chalice Farms, a look inside their commercial kitchen and a discussion of edibles and product formulation. Dr. Uma Dhanabalan, founder of Uplifting Health and Wellness, a physician with over 30 years of experience in research and patient care, led a discussion of physician participation, patient education and drug delivery mechanisms.
Amanda Rigdon, chief technical officer of Emerald Scientific, offered a demonstration of easy and adaptable sample preparation techniques for potency testing of infused product matrices. Rigdon showed attendees of the boot camp how wildly diverse cannabis products are and how challenging it can be for labs to test them.
The JCanna Canna Boot Camp is a good example of an educational event catered to the cannabis industry that offers real, hands-on experience and actionable advice. Before the two-day conference this week, the boot camp provided a bird’s eye view for attendees of the science of cannabis.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
We use tracking pixels that set your arrival time at our website, this is used as part of our anti-spam and security measures. Disabling this tracking pixel would disable some of our security measures, and is therefore considered necessary for the safe operation of the website. This tracking pixel is cleared from your system when you delete files in your history.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.