Cannabis and Hemp Extraction Explained: Ethanol vs. Supercritical

marijuana

The hemp industry is projected to grow into a $16 billion industry by 2025, and the cannabis (legal marijuana) industry is expected to grow to a $66.3 billion industry during the same period. Keeping this trend in mind, it is now a good time as ever to invest in these burgeoning markets. And if you are a consumer of hemp or cannabis-based products, expect to choose from a wide variety of CBD based products ranging from oils, creams, and balms to foods, beverages, and tinctures.

So why is the industry booming? First off, the demand for CBD based products is on the rise. This is attributed to the fact that CBD has numerous health benefits, such as managing anxiety and depression, relieving chronic pain, treating acne, and alleviating cancer-related symptoms. As an organic option, it has gained considerable popularity among people who want to distance themselves from the side effects of pharmaceutical drugs.

Secondly, the recent wave of legalization of the hemp industry has generated an influx of new entrants in the market. Many countries, including the US and most countries in Europe, allow the manufacture, sale, and purchase of hemp-based CBD products with regulated amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is one of the hundreds of cannabinoids found in the cannabis plant and it is responsible for giving the user a “high”. Therefore, with strict regulations on THC content, usually below 0.3%, CBD products are being made safe to consume.

As for cannabis-based CBD products, many analysts and professionals in the field claim that the legalization of cannabis is not a matter of “if” but a matter of “when”. While some countries, such as Australia, have only legalized medical cannabis, others, such as Canada, have made it completely legal. It is expected that the wave of global cannabis legalization is imminent.

Furthermore, changes in public perception regarding the legalization and consumption of CBD products have transformed the industry. With people favorably viewing both cannabis and hemp for their numerous medical benefits, the previously held stigma attached to cannabis plants is rapidly dissipating.

Since CBD-based products have garnered massive demand and attention, it is only logical to assume that consumers want the best products on the market. In this regard, it is exceptionally helpful for consumers to familiarize themselves with the different methods of cannabis and hemp extraction. Since the quality, purity, and potency of the final product directly depends on its extraction from the cannabis plant, it is helpful to recognize different extraction methods.

This article will explain the difference between the two most widely used cannabis and hemp extraction methods, namely ethanol extraction and carbon dioxide (CO2) supercritical extraction. So read on to find out the processes, advantages, and disadvantages of each method.

Ethanol Extraction of Cannabis and Hemp 

With rapid advancements in technology, companies have been able to build cannabis extraction machines that allow for safe, efficient, clean and environmentally friendly extraction of hemp and cannabis. These machines are specifically built to be sustainable and provide economies of scale for commercial production.

In this regard, one of the most innovative methods of extraction has been the development of the ethanol extraction system. While ethanol extraction has been used in the food and pharmaceutical extraction industry for decades, the latest ethanol extraction machines have successfully eliminated the need for post-processing methods such as winterization and filtration.

Ethanol

How Does Ethanol Extraction Work?

Since ethanol is a highly polar solvent, it can bind to virtually all the substances in the cannabis plant. This means that unwanted compounds, such as fats, lipids, waxes, and even chlorophyll can be extracted. Previously, attempts at extracting CBD from cannabis or hemp using room-temperature ethanol required post-processing techniques to separate the essential from the non-essential compounds.

However, engineering efforts have found a way around that. Nowadays, ethanol is supercooled and its polarity is manipulated so that it only extracts the desirable compounds from the cannabis plant or the biomass. The ethanol makes use of something called a negative pressure to “pull” out the cannabinoids and terpenes from the cannabis or hemp plant.

This process requires a Solvent Storage Tank for the supercooled ethanol, a Holding Tank for the cannabis or hemp plant, and an Extraction Vessel for the ethanol to pass through the plant to extract the useful chemical compounds. Highly efficient machines may contain other pieces of equipment, such as sock filters and pneumatic actuators to help filter out the plant material and maintain pressure differentials, respectively.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of Ethanol Extraction

Following are the advantages of ethanol extraction:

  • It helps achieve a 98.6% efficiency during extraction.
  • It is safe to use since it eliminates the need for heat or high pressure. Ethanol is also FDA approved as a food-grade solvent.
  • It does not require post-processing.
  • The end-product is of superior quality and high concentration.

Following are the disadvantages of ethanol extraction:

  • The equipment may require considerable investment costs.
  • Skilled people will be needed to operate the machinery.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction of Cannabis and Hemp 

Carbon Dioxide is another widely used method of cannabis and hemp extraction. Since CO2 is a gas, changes in temperature and pressure are needed to convert the CO2 into a solvent state to enable it to extract the needed cannabinoids. This state, referred to as supercritical, allows the CO2 to behave both like a gas and a liquid at once.

How Does CO2 Extraction Work?

The CO2 extraction method primarily uses three different equipment. The Compression Chamber helps the CO2 to go beyond its critical state, therefore converting it into supercritical CO2. This is passed through the cannabis or hemp plant in the Extraction Vessel to pull out the useful compounds. The desirable components of the extraction process are then collected in a Separator while the CO2 is condensed and prepared to be reused for the next extraction cycle.

The process, which uses high pressure, requires somewhere between 1500 psi to 2000 psi. This makes it demanding in terms of power requirements. Furthermore, CO2 is considered a weak solvent, which means that that extraction cycle must last a minimum of two hours and still have a yield below that which is achieved from ethanol extraction. This makes it rather difficult to scale out the production process using CO2 extraction method.

Advantages And Disadvantages Of CO2 Extraction

Following are the advantages of CO2 extraction:

  • It doesn’t contain any residuals post-extraction.
  • The equipment can be tuned and customized for a specific type of extraction, such as temperature-sensitive extraction.
  • It doesn’t pull out any large unwanted molecules such as chlorophyll.

Following are the disadvantages of CO2 extraction:

  • CO2 is a weak solvent compared to ethanol.
  • The equipment is very costly and needs high safety standards for setting up.
  • The usage of high pressure and temperature requires superior safety standards.
  • The machinery is advanced and requires technical expertise.
  • The machinery is prone to wear and tear due to high-pressure used in the process.

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