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Why I Am All In on CO₂ Extraction

A cannabis extraction expert comes clean on his preferred solvent.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

It’s time to just come out and say it — CO₂ is my preferred extraction solvent.

HighGradeRoots | Getty Images

From my early days in 2014 at Charlotte’s Web extracting CBD from hemp, where I oversaw the early implementation of CO₂ as an extraction solvent, I’ve been inspired by its unique properties. Later, as I learned more (particularly under the patient instruction of Dr. John MacKay), my sense of the possibilities of CO₂ grew. At Willie’s Reserve, I developed methodologies only possible with CO₂ that can save time and CAPEX involved with post-extraction processing.

Don’t get me wrong. In my independent consulting practice, I’ve recommended solvents other than CO₂ for some clients. There are business cases where ethanol or hydrocarbon are the best options. For instance, in an extraction lab thirsty for more crude oil, an ethanol system can better solve that constraint than CO₂. But this situation is rare.

Suppose you’re building a lab from scratch. In that case, you’re interested in optimizing an existing lab for versatility or quality of output, or you’re planning for a high rate of growth, those problems are best solved by operating a CO₂ extractor. But it has to be the right extraction system. 

Related: How Industrial-Scale Extraction Will Make CBD Accessible to Everyone Who Needs It

Improved technology

Until a couple of years ago, the available CO₂ extraction machines on the market were hampered by poor engineering that did not fully leverage the unique qualities of CO₂ as a solvent. You’d hear talk of its dynamic density and the ability to tune into targeted compounds. Still, the benefits would wash out after factoring in the variability in the process control of most CO₂ systems, not to mention the constant repairs and rebuilds, plus downtime. So, the higher sticker price for an extractor would not pay for itself in ROI the way it should have. Only larger, better-capitalized businesses would consider such a machine for CO₂’s cleaner and safer attributes (no residual solvent contamination to worry about and zero fire regulation requirements).

But today, CO₂ extraction technology has progressed, and some systems fully leverage CO₂’s unique qualities and behaviors. Some old-school equipment manufacturers, who haven’t kept up, will tell comparison shoppers that the newer technologies and their performance are impossible. I assure you, they are not. Here’s a shortlist of recent innovations that put CO₂ at the top:

  • High performance in a compact footprint. Whereas the trend has been to crudely upsize components in order to boost throughputs, the new approach is to reduce component size and minimize form factor while maintaining or even increasing efficiency.
  • Density feedback and control. This measure of system conditions allows for fine-tuning of production operation and experimentation in product development.
  • Instrumentation-grade precision. No more guesswork or wildly fluctuating extraction cycles. Total consistency and repeatability of run conditions for density targets, solvent flow rates, and run time.
  • Setpoint stability. Independent, reliable control of the key parameters of temperature, pressure, and flow rate.
  • True full automation. Virtually nothing is manually operated and is instead controlled through specially-designed software running on a standard Windows PC. This reduces human error and increases efficiency and safety. 
  • Exhaustive data logging and feedback. Hundreds of thousands of data points get logged during a standard extraction. Real-time, accurate display of key conditions on-screen for a detailed view inside the system while it’s running.
  • Optimized pumping. Smooth, silent flow profiles, and overall system stability with a proprietary pump reduce mechanical failure and maximize efficiency.
  • Simultaneous retrograde fractionation. Refinement begins during extraction through the parallel solubilizing of multiple types of oil. Massive gains are realized in the wider laboratory. Some product types can even be fully produced without post-processing.
  • Advanced methodologies. All of the above opens new possibilities for advanced technicians who are bold enough to experiment and push boundaries. Every extraction operation should have an R&D component because CO₂ has tremendous potential.

Popular misconceptions

The current popular wisdom around extraction solvents is outdated and based on assumptions that often burden labs with machines that are not right for them. The “wisdom” goes something like this:

  • All solvents are equally valuable/effective (solvent agnosticism).
  • Ethanol and butane equipment are less expensive and provide higher throughput.
  • CO₂ technology is more expensive but is cleaner, safer, and tunable.

Technically, none of those statements are untrue, but some nuances need to be considered.

Suppose the CO₂ extraction system at the center of the operation has, for instance, features that reduce the post-extraction processing load. In that case, you must factor that into the value of the extractor. And today, those machines exist, yet people still compare them to their competition based only on daily biomass throughput. Judging the ROI of a system in that way puts the purchaser at risk of reduced capacity to achieve refined oil.

Here are some other important questions that should be central to the extractor shopping process:

  • Have you done calculations beyond extraction run times to know how long it will take you to go from biomass to final, refined product?
  • Have you insisted on the verification of performance claims, both through demos and data logs?
  • What is the full business cost if your machine breaks down? In some cases, the price tag can be multiple thousands of dollars per day!
  • What if it takes you longer to hit your sales goals than you planned, and you’re sitting on surplus oil? Can you imagine how that larger, power-hungry, less-efficient machine might hamper your business’ agility and sustainability? And again, you don’t want your machine idle.
  • What if the marketplace changes and you decide you want to develop a new type of product? Can your ethanol or butane extractor be adjusted to do that, and what will the effect be on the rest of the lab?

If you are one of the unlucky folks shopping for an extraction system, you’ll find a diversity of sales approaches at the different companies that stem directly from the functionality of the machines. There are companies selling machines that do not come close to fulfilling advertised performance specifications, which has a toxic effect on the sales teams, processing chain, and inevitably the potential profits.

Agents must find ways to hide the truth of the machines or are not given the technical information needed by the prospect to make a suitable choice. But some companies are confident in what they sell and are both honest and transparent about it. If you don’t have an independent consultant representing you, these upstanding brands can play a key advisory role in establishing your extraction business.

Cannabis still has a lingering legacy of poor business practices coming out of prohibition. While some sectors such as consumer-facing brands have evolved mainly beyond it, other sectors still suffer, and manufacturing is one of them. But things are changing quickly. For CO₂ extraction, this means a renewed discovery of the solvent’s dynamic and powerful qualities that are particularly well-suited for cannabis oil production and justify its place at the top of the list of technologies for manufacturing non-flower cannabis products.

Given recent innovation trends, CO₂ has achieved significant leaps forward and should be considered for the benefits it delivers today and for the potential it promises in the near future. I am dedicating myself to helping usher in what I believe will be a golden age of CO₂ extraction.