Although the art and science of cannabis extraction is really still in its infancy, the underlying technology has been extensively researched, developed and commercialized for decades in countless other industries. And within the realm of supercritical fluid extraction, much of that research has been led by Dr. Jerry W. King, a world-renowned scientist with more than a half-century of experience in supercritical fluid technology and applied chemical engineering.
Since earning his Ph.D. from Northeastern University in Boston in 1973, Dr. King has served as a lead scientist at the National Center for Agricultural Research, a program manager and research scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a professor in the Chemical Engineering Department at the University of Arkansas, among other endeavors.
He has written more than 200 peer-reviewed articles related to supercritical fluid technology and he’s been honored with numerous awards, including most recently the 2020 Kenneth A. Spencer Award from the American Chemical Society for his contributions to agricultural and food technology based on his research of processing technologies related to environmental sustainability and consumer safety.
Suffice it say, Dr. King is probably over-qualified by the standards of most cannabis companies — but he’s lent his vast expertise to the emerging marijuana and hemp industries in recent years as a consultant and adviser.
Marijuana Venture: When did you start getting involved with the cannabis industry and using supercritical CO2 as a method for cannabis extraction?
Jerry King: I was kind of finishing up my career at the age of 70-and-a-half, not exactly knowing where it was going to go. I wanted to stay active. This happened to be in 2012, and I started being contacted by people in the marijuana industry. I realized that with my background in this field I had an opportunity to contribute to it, in terms of consulting and educating, which I’m passionate about. And so here I am, almost approaching the age of 80, and still very, very active. And I would say probably 80-85% of my activity focuses on the cannabis and hemp areas.
MV: What makes you enjoy working in the cannabis space?
JK: Well, it’s a very challenging area because it’s a very complex plant material. We deal with CBD and THC in their acid forms, but also the minor cannabinoids are beginning to be cited in a number of clinical studies. You’ve seen some products pop up out there with CBG, CBN, etc., but with the complexity of cannabis, we have in many ways, just begun to understand the full spectrum of what we’re dealing with.
I’m a scientist. I’m kind of a matrix of, say, an engineer and a chemist in the area of food technology and some in material science, particularly polymer chemistry. And this allows me a technological point of view, as opposed to a business point of view, that contributes to the field.
We really lack, in this field, a significant contribution from the chemical engineering community — and to some extent, the chemists. There are areas of chemistry that I think can really have an impact in cannabis technology platforms, including polymer chemistry and packaging, the interaction of these ingredients.
MV: How much do you think cannabis companies can benefit by having somebody from the chemical engineering community evaluate what they’re doing and how they’re handling extraction?
JK: I think they are missing an opportunity to get better engaged.
Take, for example, the need for physical property data on things like CBD or THC, in their acid forms. When I was asked by these engineering teams for the data from simple things like melting points or boiling points, even that is a little bit scary. There still is no data out there. I mean, literally nothing. One of the reasons is that academic or research institution entities in the U.S. and Canada have been prohibited from working in this area because of the federal laws and statutes and, forgive me for saying it, but the university-type administrators don’t want to let their faculties get involved because they don’t want to jeopardize their federal funding.
That’s beginning to loosen up quite a bit, and I think a brighter day lies ahead. But having this kind of data is very important.
One of the products I have is a kilo of a 99% CBD isolate, a white powder. And one of the frustrations I have is that there is not one bit of information on CBD solubility in water or organic solvents. It’s just not there. So how do you formulate with any degree of confidence? You’re doing everything empirically by the seat of your pants. And this is where I think you have to get academia and government and maybe some industrial investment in some of the fundamentals of chemistry and chemical engineering.
MV: What other areas do you see the need for scientific standards increasing?
JK: Everybody wants the federal government to deregulate marijuana more and more, recreationally and medically. And with this, it’s going to be a kind of a dual-edged sword, so to speak. It’s going to be a blessing and maybe a curse, because I think a lot of the companies, with the analytical documentation they provide, have been kind of helter-skelter in the last 10 years.
The Food and Drug Administration and these other entities that are going to have purview over the product, they’re going to demand a considerable amount more documentation.
I think it will force out a lot of the smaller or more minor companies that just can’t afford this.
I think that the industry is heading toward more of a pharmaceutical model in so many ways. I do consulting for MediPharm Labs in Ontario, Canada, and they’re an example of a company that has taken a pretty high-level, high-road approach to this. I always enjoy going up to Canada because they’ve gotten on the regulation and considerably accelerated it with respect to the current situation here in the U.S.
I just think that we’re going to be required to take a higher-level approach that will embrace more chemical engineering.
MV: Do you see a lot of misinformation within the cannabis space, particularly in the extraction sector?
JK: Oh boy, this is where I want to be careful what I say. I’ve been amazed.
I’ve made it to MJBizCon religiously for the last four or five years. I’ve gone to other conferences. I’ve listened to a lot of webinars. I’ve listened to a lot of — if I may use the term — “sales schlock” by people pushing their particular instrument or brand.
Take CO2, for example. There are probably easily 25 companies producing CO2 extraction equipment on different scales. Each of them says ours is better, and they make compelling arguments. The same happens with the little feuding between ethanol and CO2 and other processing agents. Particularly, at the ground level in a trade show, for example, or in some of these webinars, there is, I think, a bit of intellectual dishonesty. It’s just too much sell, sell, sell.
MV: Do you think it’s important for companies to be hiring people with a background or expertise in chemistry or chemical engineering?
JK: Well, I’m a bit biased here, obviously, because I have all these degrees and everything. But I think there’s got to be somebody in charge that has an overall appreciation of that. And I must admit, if I were to compare where we’re at now to five years ago, you’re seeing more people being employed that have some kind of competency with college training in a science field.
But one of the areas that you get into with cannabis and marijuana processing are all the SOPs, the standard operating procedures. I think those are going to be required by the industry, and this puts a big burden on the craft producers. The Canadian authorities demand cannabis companies to have SOP documentation similar to the pharmaceutical industry in how they’re processing.
And so once you get into this level of documentation, it frequently requires somebody with some savvy in the technological fields.
MV: It seems likely that in the next five to 10 years, the industry will have taken another leap forward in that aspect.
JK: I agree with you. I wish I could go back 20 years, because I think I’d be even more effective in this field, but sooner or later, I’m probably going to leave the Earth.
I’ve really enjoyed the adventure into cannabis, because seeing it strictly from a science and engineering perspective, there are so many challenges that make it exciting to work in.