The Extraction Issue
Extracts are quietly taking over the cannabis industry. While flower remains the top-selling product category at retail, products made from extracts — including edibles, vapes, concentrates and topicals — now account for almost 60% of legal cannabis sales in the United States. It’s a sector of the market that is only getting bigger, particularly as the scientific understanding of cannabis and extraction grows.
From the various methods of extraction and refinement to the latest innovations in products, Marijuana Venture takes an in-depth look at the market trends, best practices, equipment manufacturers, leading minds and scientific process of extraction.
Paul Gelardi is convinced that CO2 is the best method for cannabis extraction.
Gelardi is the president of Hightech Extracts, an equipment manufacturer, and its sister company, Hightech Labs, which does R&D, demonstrations, training and commercial extraction for the Maine cannabis market.
“We don’t see any other process that is greener. We don’t see any other process that is as cost effective. And we don’t see any process that is as versatile as CO2,” he says.
Gelardi is a mechanical engineer by degree. His specialty is product development and manufacturing strategy.
“At one point in time, I had about 500 engineers and technicians working for me, designing and building automation systems from the ground up,” he says. Those systems manufactured things like audiocassettes, videocassettes, floppy disks and compact discs. About eight or nine years ago, he began looking at business opportunities in the cannabis space and eventually began developing supercritical extraction systems.
With CO2, there’s no need to purge residual solvents. CO2 is also highly tunable. For example, Hightech systems can run anywhere from room temperature to 85 degrees Celsius, with pressures from 750 PSI up to 10,000 PSI (though that upper limit is generally not recommended for cannabis), all while controlling the flow rate from 10% up to 100% of what the machine is capable of.
“By dialing in the certain parameters, you can make it as powerful or as weak as you want it to be,” Gelardi says. “And because of that, it allows you to be very selective in what you extract.”
Gelardi acknowledges that CO2 systems are expensive, but he points out that the infrastructure costs are typically much lower than those using volatile solvents. He also disputes the notion of CO2 having a slower throughput because they scale particularly well (“as you get bigger, it gets more and more capital efficient,” he says) and have numerous features that can increase efficiency. Hightech systems can be fully automated, including raw material handling and integration with secondary processing systems. The company can also add co-solvent pumps, combining ethanol with CO2, to increase efficiency and give the system clean-in-place capabilities, “which is essential in an industry that is going to have to be CGMP capable in the not-too-distant future,” Gelardi says.
On the opposite side of the argument, executives at ExtractionTek Solutions are convinced that hydrocarbons are the best method for cannabis extraction.
Matthew Ellis, the company’s CEO and founder, helped pioneer the development of closed-loop, commercial hydrocarbon equipment when he started the Colorado-based company nearly nine years ago. As the company has grown, Ellis began designing the machines to be upgradeable and modular with its MeP line of extractors.
“That way people wouldn’t have to sell the (old) machine and waste their money” when they needed more capacity, Ellis says. “It actually worked out really well for a lot of people.”
While CO2 systems have the benefit of selectively targeting terpenes, and ethanol extractors are noted for their speed and throughput, hydrocarbons combine speed, consistency and versatility — at a more affordable price tag, says chief marketing officer Sean Winfield.
“With hydrocarbons, what we have is kind of the best of both worlds,” Winfield says. “And we’ve got the ability to scale up pretty quick. Our larger machine now can do about 350 pounds per shift. When you factor the price of that, the price is sub $300,000 for that machine with all the bells and whistles, so it fits that smaller scale model pretty well.”
But, more importantly, Winfield says, hydrocarbons allow processors to create all the products that are found on dispensary shelves.
“Over 98% of your shatters and your waxes and your live resins and your diamonds and that whole category of concentrates is being done with hydrocarbon machines,” he says. “They’re not done with ethanol or CO2. And yet, we can still process for crude oil.”
That versatility extends to the equipment being equally good with butane, generally used more for shatters and hashes, and propane for extracting crude oil, or a combination thereof.
“Our goal was to make a machine that could do all of it,” Ellis says, calling experimentation an important part of the industry’s evolution. “That’s how people make good products.”
And although regulations are stricter with hydrocarbon extraction than other solvents, Winfield says ExtractionTek is highly experienced with the regulatory process.
“We’ve been through it 900 or so times,” Winfield says. “We can help (our clients) get the style of equipment in the labs operating legally and in compliance all over the world.”