Welcome to the second installment in the new series of educational articles from technical writer Curt Robbins at Higher Learning LV and MJNews Network. This collection is intended for cannabis and hemp industry professionals who wish to gain a better understanding of the nuanced biochemistry of this special—and newly legal—herb.
For the next two weeks, Curt will teach readers about the hot new manufacturing process for cannabis- and hemp-infused products called nanoemulsion.
What is nanoemulsion? How can it help patients and consumers while offering additional marketing opportunities for entrepreneurs? How does it compare to traditional formulation technologies? Read on to learn!
The following is an excerpt from the Higher Learning LV™ instructor-led course Cannabis Core Concepts.
What is Nanoemulsion Technology?
Those who work in the cannabis industry know that there’s plenty of hype regarding a relatively new molecular infusion technology called nanoemulsion (sometimes labeled miniemulsion, ultrafine emulsion, or submicron emulsion).
Operating at the extreme microscopic size level that scientists call nanoscale, nanoemulsion offers a slew of advantages over traditional formulation technologies such as non-emulsified oils, macroemulsions, and microemulsions involving liposomes. Unfortunately, nanoemulsion tech has also resulted in significant marketing hyperbole and marketplace confusion.
For engineering nerds, an interesting fact of nanoemulsion tech is that various underlying methods can be employed to create a nanoparticle emulsion liquid. All of these approaches, including ultrasonic generators, rotor devices, and high pressure homogenizers, are intended to result in a lifestyle beverage or liquid medicine that efficiently delivers wellness molecules, including cannabinoids and terpenes—without degradation or other loss of potency during their path from processing and packaging to consumption and onset of effects.
Another major reason companies are excited about nanoemulsions: Speed of onset. This molecular encapsulation approach results in significantly faster onset of bioavailability. In some cases, nanoencapsulation reduces the onset wait period from two or more hours (a traditional infused product) to about fifteen minutes (a roughly 800 percent improvement).
It should be noted that nanoemulsion technology does not magically make hydrophobic fat-soluble molecules like cannabinoids and terpenes water soluble (as the marketing materials of some companies would lead one to believe). Rather, it is a method by which these fat-loving, water-fearing chemical compounds can be efficiently stored and transported on the way to their biophysical destinations (in the case of cannabis and hemp, microscopic CB1 and CB2 cellular receptors within the brain, central nervous system, and tissues of the immune system).
Nanoemulsion technology is quickly gaining popularity with wellness professionals, consumers, and emerging hemp and cannabis brands. This approach to the consumption of some types of molecules that display poor water solubility—including the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids produced by cannabis—is complex in detail, yet easily grasped in general theory.
Many cannabis and hemp companies, especially those offering products intended to enhance health and wellness, are flocking to nanoemulsion tech for two primary reasons: Improved stability and faster onset of bioavailability (with the bonuses of significantly greater potency and more accurate dosing). The potential downside of nanoemulsions? Production cost (especially at smaller volumes).
Improved stability is important for heavily regulated industries like hemp and cannabis that involve supply chains featuring detailed distribution cycles and sometimes lengthy storage periods. Faster onset is critical for patient populations where conditions such as pain, nausea, social anxiety, or seizures demand the fastest possible onset of efficacy.
Nanoemulsion involves use of an agitative force (such as ultrasonic sound waves) to break up a solution containing two liquified substances (often an oil and an aqueous [water] element) that, under normal circumstances and in traditional preparations, would not form a homogeneous mixture.
The compound of medicinal or therapeutic focus, such as a cannabinoid like cannabidiol (CBD) or delta-8 tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), is infused into an oil. Despite their differences, cannabinoids, flavonoids, and terpenes share one trait: They are fat soluble but not water soluble. Because of this important biochemical characteristic, these molecules must be infused into a lipid (fat) or oil for practical consumption by humans.
This marriage of oil and water, with the oil acting as a carrier for medicinal wellness compounds such as cannabinoids like CBD and THC, is accomplished with the assistance of a third element called an emulsifying agent (a common example of which is lecithin). This relatively technical concoction produces what scientists and product formulators dub a “single phase” mixture that is comprised of extremely small particles that fall within the nanoscale range (described below).
Nanoscale (and the entire model for scientific measurement) is based upon the metric system, not the English scheme of inches and feet. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter (a meter being 3.3 feet). The root term nano is derived from ancient Greek, where it means “dwarf.”
A micron, or micrometer, is the unit of measure directly above nano and is 1,000 nanometers (nm). To better gain a sense of the size of nanoscale, consider that a human hair is about 75 microns (75 μm), or 75,000 nanometers, in diameter. A sheet of standard notebook paper is just slightly thicker, at about 100,000 nanometers.
According to the U.S. federal government’s National Nanotechnology Initiative:
- A strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter
- An inch contains 25,400,000 nanometers
- A gold atom is about one third of a nanometer in diameter
Infused beverages or tinctures containing broad-spectrum (involving molecular filtering) and full-spectrum (lacking filtering) nanoemulsions of hemp or individual cannabinoids (such as CBD or cannabigerol [CBG]) are defined as chemically and physically stable liquid-in-liquid dispersions featuring relatively minuscule droplet sizes of approximately 100 nm.
Some strict sources define particle (droplet) sizes that exceed 100 nm to be outside of the nanoscale. However, technically speaking, 50-999 nm serves as an acceptable industry standard for nanoencapsulation particle size. A February 2021 market analysis defined nanoemulsions as “oil-in-water emulsions with mean size ranging from 50 to 1000 nm” that feature an average droplet size of “between 100 and 500 nm.”
Bioavailability & Delivery Dynamics
Nanoemulsions manifest as liquid solutions packaged as tinctures, infused beverages, eye drops, topicals (creams, lotions, balms, etc.), or transdermal patches. They are designed to circumvent the relatively lengthy process of digestion that is performed by the stomach and liver—with the overall goal of improving bioavailability compared to conventional “edibles.”
Nanoencapsulated liquids also avoid the potential harms caused by inhalation of smoke and vapor. While research has revealed cannabis vapor to be considerably safer than the combustion involved in smoking the herb, chronic consumption via either method of inhalation may lead to lung damage and conditions such as bronchitis. Nanoencapsulated edibles and sublingual tinctures, while slower in onset than inhalation (the fastest consumption avenue at only 2.5 minutes), offer an improved safety profile that, in many use cases, justifies the slower onset.
Methods of creating nanoemulsions include sonication (the application of ultrasonic sound) and high-pressure homogenization. Nanoemulsions produce significantly greater overall bioavailability (described in detail below), including faster onset and enhanced potency. This is true not only when nanoemulsions are eaten, but also when they are consumed sublingually (as with tinctures) or via transdermal patches. This fact gives this particular emulsion technology an unusually broad application range within the cannabis industry.
A 2015 research study entitled “Nanoemulsion: An Advanced Mode of Drug Delivery System” reported that nanoemulsions “are manufactured for improving the delivery of active pharmaceutical ingredients” and that the process involves a “thermodynamically stable isotropic system in which two immiscible liquids are mixed to form a single phase by means of an emulsifying agent.”
The improved stability of nanoencapsulated formulations makes them of significant interest to wellness professionals because they can increase the precision of dosing. This is of importance for many conditions, including those whose treatment involves compounds that feature biphasic response curves or other peculiarities that can be exploited by a lack of dosing accuracy.
Tune in next week for What is Nanoemulsion Technology?: Part 2 when we’ll dig into the hard research evidence behind the value of nanoemulsion tech for both companies and consumers and learn more about bioavailability. Don’t miss it!