What are the goals of the cannabis processing operation?

Myriad cannabis processing operations have taken root. Cannabis processing labs have sprouted in all areas of the industry and recent developments promise to make 2019 a banner year in many respects.

Whether the lab is designed to ensure consistency in potency and safety or to simply check cannabinoid levels in grow operations, processors should be aware of the best extraction methods and equipment sources appropriate for their needs.


What is the desired product, the scale, and the budget of the cannabis operation?

The desired product and the requirements of the extraction method(s) will dictate the equipment and supplies needed. Of course, these considerations will depend on the scale and budget of the operation as well.

With these considerations in mind, we take a moment to detail a few examples of cannabis labs -- focusing on the equipment and consumables needed to properly outfit these operations. 


Equipment involved in cannabis preparation

The initial step in cannabis extraction entails raw material preparation. The scale and the source of the material (hemp, indica, sativa, cannabis product) will dictate the type and throughput of the grinding or milling equipment. Here are a few examples:

  • Small-scale indica/sativa flower and leaf cutting and milling can be accommodated by a Knife Mill
  • Larger-scale comminution of tough, fibrous hemp stalks can be accommodated by a high-torque, adjustable speed, sieve-type mill or Cutting Mill

  • Cryogenic grinding and pulverizing of plant seeds, leaves, roots, and products can be accommodated by a Cryomill

 Other examples may be more appropriate for the scale, speed, and the required output for the subsequent extraction process.


Equipment used for cannabis extraction

A grow operation or farm may need a quick method for extraction and analysis of cannabinoid content. A commercial producer of CBD distillate may require an industrial-scale extractor. A research lab may use several different cannabis extracts and require suitable equipment for each.

Again, the product, the scale, and the budget will dictate the equipment. Here are a few examples:

Distillation – full-spectrum cannabinoids

  • Small scale, low-throughput total cannabinoid extraction is compatible with ethanol, butane, or propane extraction and distillation using rotary evaporation for solvent removal, such as those listed here.

Vacuum distillation - cannabinoids and terpenes

  • Labs with requirements for higher-yields and heat-sensitive extractions may be more inclined towards vacuum distillation, involving the use of a vacuum pump-enabled rotovap for solvent removal: 5 Liter Scale - 20 Liter Scale - 50 Liter Scale

Fractional distillation - cannabinoids and terpenes - high-purity

  • Those seeking to obtain fractional distillation of higher-purity cannabis compounds may opt for vacuum distillation instruments fitted with regular or short path distillation columns:

Wiped/thin film distillation - cannabinoids and terpenes - high-purity – heat-labile

  • Labs seeking to isolate and preserve high-yields of thermally sensitive compounds may opt for wiped film or centrifugal molecular distillation units, inlcuding Falling Film - Lab Scale - Pilot Scale distillation systems.

A benefit with these devices is extraction can be run in continuous-mode, thereby increasing throughput.

Winterization – cannabis isolates – high-purity

  • Some labs will seek to increase the purity of cannabinoids and other organic compounds in cannabis extracts through the process of winterization – which serves to remove plant lipids, fats, waxes, and other contaminants.  Extracts are diluted in low temperature (< -20 °C) ethanol to stimulate precipitation, followed by filtration and solvent removal. Temperature control is critically important in the process:

Decarboxylation – cannabis isolates – high-purity

  • Yet other labs may be interested in production of high-purity THC and/or CBD in the decarboxylated forms – a process that typically involves incubation of dry plant material or extract for sufficient time at 100-150 °C in an oven, such as a safety oven for flammable solvents.

Super critical carbon dioxide extraction – low residual solvent – full-spectrum or high-purity cannabis isolates

  • Still other labs may require supercritical CO2 extraction for production of high-yield product with low residual solvent content. Certain systems can add fractionation to obtain high-purity isolates. Temperature control is critical in these systems, which can include lab scale to industry scale throughput

How to test cannabis extractions

Just as there are many extraction methods for the wide variety of cannabis products, there is also a multitude of platforms for potency and safety analysis. Small-scale analytical methods may make use of High-pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) as an initial step in purification and quantification. Larger-scale operations may use high-throughput UHPLC, CPC, or another preparative technique.

We will explore these and other emerging methods in subsequent follow up articles.

Visit the LabX Cannabis Laboratory Application page for a wide range of equipment and consumables listings.

Visit the LabX Cannabis Laboratory Resources site for more information on the cannabis extraction and testing sides of the business – along with general cannabis industry insights.