Tag Archives: wax

Cannabis Extracts for the Informed Consumer: Solvent or Solventless

By Nick J. Bucci
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As cannabis markets continue to gain traction, inconsistent and largely unpredictable markets have left recreational consumers in an informational fog. Try as the industry may, or may not to inform consumers, the lack of knowledge was evident when an established Colorado hash company opened a second operation in California. Expecting high demand for their solventless concentrates, the demand for their solvent-based counterparts came as a surprise. Initially hoping to eliminate solvent extracts from their product line-up, the company was forced to devote about half their overall production to solvent extracts, until information spreads and attitudes start to change. Over the past year several companies have joined the solventless side of history, but consumer understanding remains largely stagnant. For those immediately overwhelmed by terminology, cannabis extracts, concentrates or hash are all interchangeable terms describing concentrated cannabis. Under these umbrella terms, two distinct categories emerge depending upon whether chemical solvents were or were not used to extract the hash. Hence: solvent or solventless. A brief overview of cannabis concentrates will help consumers to understand the evolution away from solvent extractions and toward a superior solventless future.

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Science and economics merge when considering all the possible uses of concentrated compounds to final product formulations

Before regulated cannabis markets, cannabis extracts had long been in use. These old-world methods of cannabis extraction use very basic solventless techniques to create more potent, concentrated forms of cannabis. Dry sifting is easily the oldest form of cannabis extraction and a prime example of one solventless technique. Something as simple as shaking dried cannabis over metal screens and collecting the residue underneath creates a solventless product called keif. Dark brown bubble-hash, made popular decades ago, is another ancient technique using only ice and water to perform extractions without chemical solvents. After decades of stagnant and limited old-world methods, changes in legislation allowed cannabis sciences to flourish. These old-world hash methods were quickly forgotten, replaced by the astonishing progress of modern solvent extractions.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), just one of hundreds of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

The emergence of solvent extracts revolutionized cannabis around 2011, creating new categories of cannabis products that exploded onto the scene. Not only did solvent extracts produce the most potent and cleanest forms of hash ever seen at this point, it also created new possibilities for hash-oil vape cartridges and cannabis extract infused edibles. These solvent extracts use butane, propane, or other hydrocarbon solvents to extract, or “blast” cannabinoids from the plant. By running solvents through cannabis and then purging or removing leftover, residual solvents, a super-potent, premium hash product is achieved. Regulated markets require testing to ensure only a safe level, if any, of the solvent used in the extraction process remains in the final product. This technology ushered in the first wave of concentrates to medical and recreational markets under the descriptive titles of wax, shatter and crumble. While these effective and affordable products can still be found today, far superior products have largely replaced wax and shatter. Distillation techniques can further purify and isolate THC-a, while removing harmful residual solvents. For a time, Solvent-free was used to describe this ultra-purified distillate, but the needless term has fallen out of use. Solvent-free is still a solvent extraction using chemical solvents, don’t be fooled. Distillation and CO2 extractions have fallen into general disfavor as they destroy the flavorful terpenes and valuable cannabinoids, that when present create an “entourage effect.” This “entourage effect” happens when the medicinal and recreational properties are most effective, pronounced, and impactful due to a full range of terpenes and cannabinoids being present in the final product. With companies manually reintroducing terpenes to their final extracts, it’s an attempt to restore what was lost during solvent extraction processes. Many brands claim to use cannabis derived or food-grade terpenes to infuse or reintroduce terpenes into their purified hash oils. While this adds flavor and taste, especially to distillate cartridges, it’s far from an ideal solution. Armed with this new information, the informed consumer looks for a full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids in their hash.

THC-A crumble, terpene-rich vape oil, THC sap (from left to right).

With terpene preservation a new priority, all aspects of hash making were reevaluated. By using fresh-frozen cannabis flower, solvent extractions quickly reached new heights. Using the same techniques as prior solvent extractions, the cannabis plant is frozen immediately upon harvesting, rather than trimming and drying the crop as usual. Freezing the plant preserves valuable terpenes helping to create a new category for hydrocarbon extracts under the general label of live resins. This live resin, containing vastly greater profiles of terpenes and cannabinoids than earlier waxes, shatters or crumbles is sold as live-resin sauce, sugar, badder, frosting, diamonds and more. Many versions of live resin re-use previous terms that describe consistencies. These live resin solvent extracts outperform the wax, crumble and shatters of old, and are priced accordingly. Some of the best solvent extracts available today use butane to extract hash oil, which forms THC-a crystals and diamonds seen in live resin sauces. Having learned the value of terpenes and cannabinoids, early efforts to purify THC were clearly misled. The industry defining use of fresh-frozen cannabis flowers greatly improved the quality of all extracts having realized the psychoactive effects are largely dependent on the various profiles of cannabinoids and terpenes. Pure THC-a crystals and isolates are easily achieved with solvent extractions but, produce inferior effects both medicinally and recreationally. Discovering the “entourage effect” as described earlier, these elements of cannabis allowed old-world solventless techniques to be re-inspired and reinvigorated with the benefit of healthy genetics and a hearty understanding of past mistakes.

Having gone full circle, solventless techniques are again at the forefront of the cannabis industry, having attained near perfection for our current understanding of cannabis anatomy.

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The increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes

Using the lessons and tendencies of prior extractions, the solventless method, in all its final forms, begin with the same initial process to make ice-water hash oil. Often referred to as solventless hash oil (SHO), fresh-frozen flowers are submerged in ice and water, soaked and agitated before the water is filtered through mesh screens. As these mesh screens are measured by microns, the increasingly finer mesh works to separate and extract microscopic trichomes that break free from the cannabis plant. The 120- and 90-micron mesh screens usually collect pristine trichome heads. After scraping the remaining material from the screens, its sieved onto trays where the hash can dry using modern techniques of sublimation. The results are beyond phenomenal and are sure to shock even life-long cannabis consumers. This technique isolates only the most potent and psychoactive parts of the plant, to produce white to clear solventless ice water hash. When done with precision 6-star ice water hash is formed. The hash can be sold and consumed as is or undergo additional solventless techniques to produce hash-rosin. Not to be confused with live-resins, rosin uses pressure and slight heat to squeeze ice-water hash, into hash-rosin. Some companies have elected to whip their rosins into a solventless badder or allow their hash rosins to undergo a cold cure process that creates textures and varieties like hash rosin sauce. Regardless of the final solventless product, they all begin as ice water extractions. These simple, natural methods of extraction are quickly being adopted by companies known for live resin. As solventless extracts are safer, cleaner and superior in quality to solvent chemical extractions, the race is on as the industry shifts toward a solventless future.

While I’d be happy to never see another solvent extract again, without the miraculous breakthroughs and advances in all aspects of cannabis manufacturing and production we may have not yet arrived where we are today. When using solvents to extract, the trichomes, which contain the full spectrum of terpenes and cannabinoids, are dissolved by the solvent, which is then evaporated off, leaving behind dissolved trichomes. In solventless hash, these trichomes remain whole and are never dissolved or broken down. Instead they are broken free by agitation in ice and water, separating the trichome heads from their less-active stems. These valuable trichomes heads contain everything pertinent and are never destroyed, dissolved or melted like solvent-extractions are forced to do. The benefit of keeping the heads of these trichomes whole results in a far superior product expressing the full profile of terpenes and cannabinoids the way mother nature intended. This natural profile of trichomes lends itself directly to the entourage effect that solvent extracts were found to be missing.

Extraction techniques are not equal and depend upon whether quality or mass production is the aim. Solvent extracts have quickly begun to represent the old-guard of mass-produced cannabis concentrates, with the solventless new-guard focusing on quality, small batch, hash-rosin excellence.

dry cannabis plants

How to Grow Cannabis Plants for Concentrate Production

By Andrew Myers
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dry cannabis plants

While flower is still the most popular way to consume cannabis, the concentrates market is booming. Some predict concentrates will be nearly as popular as flower by 2022, with an estimated $8.5 billion in retail sales. That’s a lot of concentrates and, chances are, cannabis producers are already feeling the pressure to keep up.

Concentrates refer to products made from processing cannabis – often resulting in much higher THC or CBD percentages. The category includes oils, wax, dabs, shatter, live resin and hash. Consumers are increasingly drawn to these cannabis products for their near-immediate and intense effects. They’re often consumed through vaporization, dabbing or sublingual absorption and are sometimes favored by those who want to avoid smoking. Cannabis growers who have traditionally focused on flower yields may decide to prioritize quality and potency levels in order to tap into these changing consumer tastes.

What Growers Should Focus on to Produce High Quality Concentrates
We’ll let you in on a little secret: making good concentrates starts with good flower. If you’re starting with low-quality flower, it’s impossible to create a high-quality concentrate. Whatever qualities inherent to the flower you’re starting with will be amplified post-processing. So, really, the concentrate-making process starts at the seedling level, requiring the right care and attention to coax out the results you’re looking for.

Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), just one of hundreds of cannabinoids found in cannabis.

But what makes good flower? While this can be a subjective question, those producing concentrates generally look for flowers with big, abundant trichomes. Trichomes are the small, dewy structures found across the cannabis plant on buds, leaves and even the stem. They’re responsible for producing the plant’s cannabinoids and terpenes – the chemical compounds that give a strain its unique benefits, aroma and taste. Evolutionarily, trichomes attract pollinators, deter hungry herbivores and provide some defense against wind, cold and UV radiation.

Generally, trichomes indicate how potent the flower is. Plus, what we’re most often looking for when making concentrates is higher cannabinoid and terpene profiles, while also ensuring absolute safety.

What measures can growers take to produce crops that are ideal for concentrate production? Start with the following:

Avoiding Contaminants
Just like you would wash your fruits and vegetables before consumption, consumers want to be sure there’s no dangerous residuals in the concentrate they are ingesting. Growers can avoid any post-process residuals by taking a few key steps, including:

  • Photo: Michelle Tribe, Flickr

    Cutting out the pesticides. Any pesticides that are on your flowers before they go through processing will show up in your concentrates, often even more – you guessed it – concentrated. This is a serious health concern for consumers who might be sensitive to certain chemicals or have compromised immune systems. It’s dangerous to healthy consumers, too. Rather than spraying hazardous chemicals, growers could consider integrated pest management techniques, such as releasing predatory insects.

  • Limiting foliar spraying. Some growers will use foliar spraying to address nutrient deficiency or pest-related issues through delivering nutrients straight to the leaves. However, this can also result in contaminated concentrates. If you really need to spray, do it during the vegetative stage or investigate organic options.
  • Taking the time to flush the crop. This is a critical step in reducing potential contaminants in your concentrate, especially if you’re using a non-organic nutrient solution or fertilizer. Flushing simply means only giving your plants water during the final two weeks of flowering before harvest, resulting in a cleaner, non-contaminated flower and therefore a cleaner concentrate.

Perfecting the Indoor Environment
When cultivating cannabis indoors, growers are given ultimate control over their crop. They control how much light the plants receive, the lighting schedule, temperature and humidity levels. Creating the ideal environment for your cannabis crop is the number one way to ensure healthy plants and quality concentrates. There are many factors to consider when maintaining an indoor grow:

  • Temperature regulation. Trichomes are sensitive to temperature changes and start to degrade if they’re too hot or too cold. To maintain the best trichome structure, you’ll want to maintain an ideal temperature – for most strains, this falls between an idyllic 68 and 77 degrees.
  • Adequate light. For plants to perform photosynthesis indoors, they’ll need an appropriate light source – preferably one that is full-spectrum. Full-spectrum LEDs are able to closely replicate the sun and provide ample, uniform light to your crop. Another selling point for LEDs is their low heat output, making it much easier for growers to regulate ambient heat.

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    Rows of cannabis plants drying and curing following harvest
  • CO2. Another necessary ingredient for photosynthesis is CO2. Providing your indoor crops with CO2 can boost plant size and yields and, therefore, provides more surface area for trichomes to develop and thrive.
  • Cold snap prior to harvest. Some growers rely on this age-old tactic for one last push before harvest – lowering their temperature for a few days right at the end of the flower cycle. They believe this puts the plants into a defense mode and will produce more trichomes in order to protect themselves.

Following Best Practices Post-Harvest
You made it to harvest – you’re almost done!

When harvesting and storing your plants, handle them with care to reduce damage to trichomes. If you’re planning on immediately making concentrates, you can move forward to the drying and curing process. If you’re going to wait a few weeks before processing, freeze your plants. This will preserve the cannabinoid and terpene profiles at their peak.

As the cannabis industry continues to expand, more consumers are likely to reach for concentrates at their local dispensaries. It makes sense that businesses want to diversify their offerings to satisfy customers looking for the most effective way to consume cannabis. As with any cannabis-derived product, producers will want to prioritize quality and safety – especially in the concentrate market.

AOCS Highlights Cannabis Lab Standards, Extraction Technology

By Aaron G. Biros
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The American Oil Chemists’ Society (AOCS) held its annual conference in Salt Lake City this week, with a track focused on cannabis testing and technology. Cynthia Ludwig, director of technical services at AOCS and member of the advisory panel to The Emerald Test, hosted the two-day event dedicated to all things extraction technology and analytical testing of cannabis.

Highlights in the discussion surrounding extraction technologies for the production of cannabis concentrates included the diversity of concentrate products, solvent selection for different extraction techniques and the need for cleaning validation in extraction equipment. Jerry King, Ph.D., research professor at the University of Arkansas, began the event with a brief history of cannabis processing, describing the physical morphologies in different types of extraction processes.

J. Michael McCutcheon presents a history of cannabis in medicine
J. Michael McCutcheon presents a history of cannabis in medicine

Michael McCutcheon, research scientist at Eden Labs, laid out a broad comparison of different extraction techniques and solvents in use currently. “Butane is a great solvent; it’s extremely effective at extracting active compounds from cannabis, but it poses considerable health, safety and environmental concerns largely due to its flammability,” says McCutcheon. He noted it is also very difficult to get USP-grade butane solvents so the quality can be lacking. “As a solvent, supercritical carbon dioxide can be better because it is nontoxic, nonflammable, readily available, inexpensive and much safer.” The major benefit of using supercritical carbon dioxide, according to McCutcheon, is its ability for fine-tuning, allowing the extractor to be more selective and produce a wider range of product types. “By changing the temperature or pressure, we can change the density of the solvent and thus the solubility of the many different compounds in cannabis.” He also noted that, supercritical carbon dioxide exerts tremendous pressure, as compared to hydrocarbon solvents, so the extraction equipment needs to be rated to a higher working pressure and is generally more expensive.

John A. Mackay, Ph.D., left at the podium and Jerry King, Ph.D., on the right
John A. Mackay, Ph.D., left at the podium and Jerry King, Ph.D., on the right

John A. Mackay, Ph.D., senior director of strategic technologies at Waters Corporation, believes that cannabis processors using extraction equipment need to implement cleaning SOPs to prevent contamination. “There is currently nothing in the cannabis industry like the FDA CMC draft for the botanical industry,” says Mackay. “If you are giving a child a high-CBD extract and it was produced in equipment that was previously used for another strain that contains other compounds, such as CBG, CBD or even traces of THC extract, there is a high probability that it will still contain these compounds as well as possibly other contaminants unless it was properly cleaned.” Mackay’s discussion highlighted the importance of safety and health for workers throughout the workflow as well as the end consumer.

Jeffrey Raber, Ph.D., chief executive officer of The Werc Shop, examined different testing methodologies for different applications, including potency analyses with liquid chromatography. His presentation was markedly unique in proposing a solution to the currently inconsistent classification system for cannabis strains. “We really do not know what strains cause what physiological responses,” says Raber. “We need a better classification system based on chemical fingerprints, not on baseless names.” Raber suggests using a chemotaxonomic system to identify physiological responses in strains, noting that terpenes could be the key to these responses.

Cynthia Ludwig welcomes attendees to the event.
Cynthia Ludwig welcomes attendees to the event.

Dylan Wilks, chief scientific officer at Orange Photonics, discussed the various needs in sample preparation for a wide range of products. He focused on sample prep and variation for on-site potency analysis, which could give edibles manufacturers crucial quality assurance tools in process control. Susan Audino, Ph.D., chemist and A2LA assessor, echoed Wilks’ concerns over sample collection methods. “Sampling can be the most critical part of the analysis and the sample size needs to be representative of the batch, which is currently a major issue in the cannabis industry,” says Audino. “I believe that the consumer has a right to know that what they are ingesting is safe.” Many seemed to share her sentiment about the current state of the cannabis testing industry. “Inadequate testing is worse than no testing at all and we need to educate the legislators about the importance of consumer safety.”

46 cannabis laboratories participated in The Emerald Test’s latest round of proficiency testing for potency and residual solvents. Cynthia Ludwig sits on the advisory panel to give direction and industry insights, addressing specific needs for cannabis laboratories. Kirsten Blake, director of sales at Emerald Scientific, believes that proficiency testing is the first step in bringing consistency to cannabis analytics. “The goal is to create some level of industry standards for testing,” says Blake. Participants in the program will be given data sets, judged by a consensus mean, so labs can see their score compared to the rest of the cannabis testing industry. Proficiency tests like The Emerald Test give labs the ability to view how consistent their results are compared to the industry’s results overall. According to Ludwig, the results were pleasantly surprising. “The results were better than expected across the board; the vast majority of labs were within the acceptable range,” says Ludwig. The test is anonymous so individual labs can participate freely.

The AOCS cannabis working groups and expert panels are collaborating with Emerald Scientific to provide data analytics reports compliant with ISO 13528. “In the absence of a federal program, we are trying to provide consistency in cannabis testing to protect consumer safety,” says Ludwig. At the AOCS annual meeting, many echoed those concerns of consumer safety, proposing solutions to the current inconsistencies in testing standards.