Extraction Magazine - January 2019
Jason Lupoi, Ph.D.
Recently, it’s become clear that Canada, as a whole, is the current global leader in the cannabis industry. That’s obviously not the fault of the myriad of passionate people involved in the industry here in the United States. It’s just that the Canadian government has chosen to free their minds of decades of misinformation and downright lies about a medicinal plant. It’s pretty revolting to find oneself still “breaking the law” on a U.S. federal level just by bringing a joint to one’s lips, to medicate, relax, and heal, while you can watch something like 37.8 million people toke on a cigarette, with scarcely a negative glance cast in their direction.
It’s not as bleak of a scene when considered on a state level, as more states have bucked the system, whether for tax revenue, to pacify constituents, or because they truly believe that cannabis can help more people than their minds could continue to refute. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed with Canada’s brazen blazing of their own future, venturing into uncharted waters. For now, we Americans can simply genuflect towards our northerly neighbors, and wait.
So, with all of that in mind, I’ve been keen to talk more with leaders in the Canadian cannabis industry, to hear their thoughts on everything from politics to product development to the cosmic landscape of the cannabis industry’s evolution. Is everyone up there running amok, stoned to the bone, unproductive and lazy? Hardly. What’s been apparent to me ever since I first set foot into what was once the Tweed Headquarters in Smiths Falls, Ontario is that Canadians are professionals. So, naturally, I was eager to talk with Pete Patterson, Chief Operating Officer and Co-Founder of Vitalis Extraction Technology.
Pete was thoughtful enough to provide very introspective responses to my questions, thus, I thought it best to include those answers in their entirety.
EM: There’s always an opinion regarding which concentrates actually deliver the cleanest cannabis product? What’s your take on this?
Pete: CO2 extracted concentrates deliver the cleanest cannabis product. Under normal or ambient conditions, CO2 is a gas. The best supercritical CO2 extraction equipment will pressurize that CO2 to a point where it can be used as a solvent to dissolve the natural components in the cannabis plant. From there, the pressure is released, the CO2 returns back to its gaseous state, and you have the cleanest, solvent-free extract.
EM: Can you offer some quick examples of when one would employ subcritical to supercritical CO2?
Pete: Subcritical extraction is used to extract delicate compounds from the biomass, typically terpenes. Terpenes are produced by the plant as a defense mechanism, but which offer the brilliant cannabis smell that we love and also contribute to medicinal effects. Using lower temperatures and pressures allows for extraction of these materials, as using supercritical parameters (temperatures above 88°F, pressure over 1081 psi) can cause some of these to be evaporated or thermally degraded.
EM: What do you consider to be the main advantages and disadvantages of using CO2?
Pete: The main advantages of using CO2 for extraction include solvent-free concentrates, selectability, mild operating conditions, low operating costs, and scalability. Disadvantages include equipment cost and selectability (T&T: yes, he listed it as both an advantage and disadvantage. Keep reading).
CO2 extraction results in the fewest, if any, bonded hydrocarbons to the product. This means that your end result does not have to be purged to remove any unwanted by-products, shaving off time and effort for a finished concentrate. The selectability of CO2 is a huge advantage. Depending on the compound of interest, the extraction parameters can be set for optimal recovery of those specific compounds. Companies using CO2 extraction can have far more options for product applications and uses than any other methodology.
Because of the mild operating parameters, the operator is able to create a concentrate that replicates the biomass being extracted, ensuring product quality and stability. This includes the volatile components which are often lost in other methods of extraction. CO2 has been proven to retain these (see Martinez de La Ossa et al. (1991) and Vardag and Korner (1995)).
CO2 is a very cheap solvent and readily available. This makes operation inexpensive, and also allows for incredible scalability.
Equipment cost is a perceived disadvantage as a CO2 extraction system can be 2 to 3 times more expensive than a hydrocarbon or ethanol machine with similar throughput capabilities. As a direct comparison, this observation is true. Upon closer review, when looking at room requirements (C1D1/D2) and operating costs, CO2 prevails as the most scalable extraction methodology.
We listed selectability as an advantage, but it can also be a disadvantage. Because of the variability of products that can be made from a CO2 extraction system, the operator requires a level of sophistication. These are not toasters. Automation helps to reduce errors and ensure consistency; however, the end product must be kept in mind.
EM: Extraction methods like butane require that the sample be measured to ensure that there are no residues left behind that could be harmful to consumers. To your knowledge, have samples ever been tested to see if residual CO2 has been left behind?
Pete: Residual CO2 at room temperature and ambient atmospheric pressure is a gas. Much as carbonated beverages go flat, CO2 from extracted oils evaporates. You’ll notice when you first collect your CO2 concentrate from the equipment that it’s bubbling, and that any residual CO2 evaporating. Over several minutes, it’s completely gone.
EM: What are the main differences between your F-, Q-, and R-series of extraction technology?
Pete: All of Vitalis’ award-winning systems focus on the key needs of any large-scale extraction business: reliability, component certification, and continuous 24/7 operation. Furthermore, all Vitalis systems are developed in a way that places top priority on all three fundamentals of extraction technology: temperature, pressure, and flow. All are ASME certified. The main difference in the lines is the capacity. The F-series has one 45-liter vessel; the Q-series has double the flow rate of the F-series and twice the capacity; when two Q-90s run together, it features quadruple the capacity at 180 liters. The R-series is currently the largest of the Vitalis production systems with a higher flow rate, with the R-400 offering 400 liters of capacity with two R-200s running together, and capable of processing up to 500 pounds of plant material per day. Keep an eye out for some upcoming announcements on larger systems coming from the Vitalis Engineering Team.
The F-Series provides a fantastic entry point into CO2 extraction. The Q and R-Series both allow for scalable growth, and the dual process lines make it easier to manage 24/7 around the clock extraction – while one side is extracting, the B side can be cleaned and readied for the next run.
EM: We like the old-school funk at EM,and so, this was the point in the discussion to let our hair down, and let Pete get a little cosmic and funky.
EM: Your thoughts on the scientific/medical research being conducted, taking us to the frontier?
Pete: We are very excited about the current research being conducted. Specifically, the differences between the medicinal effects of a single molecule (CBD) vs the full spectrum oil (a combination of cannabinoids, flavonoids, terpenes, etc.). Early studies have demonstrated the superiority of “full spectrum”; however, we are watching projects right now explain what full spectrum actually is. Along with that, we are seeing other groups isolate the various cannabinoids and are re-introducing various recipes (mixtures for example of 1-part CBG, 2-parts CBN, and 1-part limonene) to test those results. Perhaps the “entourage effect” may just be 5 or 6 molecules in this full spectrum medicine. There is so much that still remains a mystery about this amazing plant.
EM: How do you see the emphasis on those targeted therapeutic products playing a role in the foreseeable future, such as blending different formulations of cannabinoids and terpenes for a defined outcome, or the proliferation of minor cannabinoids via alternative methods?
Pete: Vitalis’ proprietary technology and the ability it gives processors to extract high-quality full spectrum oils, is central to this discussion. Those familiar with cannabis know the value of the entourage effect – the beneficial synergies that result from consuming a full spectrum of cannabinoids in a myriad of delivery formats. Where the true science is going to make an impact is understanding why one variety affects different ailments on different people. The curious part will be matching genetics with genetics. Looking at the patient’s genetics and identifying which cannabis genetics will work best for which particular therapy.
EM: How might Vitalis’ technology play a role in fractionating the different chemical constituents to prepare novel formulations of terpenes and cannabinoids?
Pete: Vitalis machines enable our customers to extract oils that are as pure as possible while retaining the full spectrum of the cannabis plant. From there, with the appropriate tools in hand, scientists can take that full spectrum oil and make real medicine.
EM: How do you see the concentrate industry evolving in Canada? The US?
Pete: Despite concentrates not being legalized in Canada yet, they will dominate the future market. Areas that have legalized concentrates have already seen this trend take effect. In Colorado (one of the most mature markets for legal rec), cannabis flower sales have dropped nearly 25% since legalization, while concentrates jumped from 15% to 30% in sales over the same period. California and Oregon show similar patterns. Moving forward, North American flower sales are projected to fall from 50% of sales in 2017 to around 36% by the end of 2022, while concentrate sales will rise from 23% to over 36% in the same time period.
People will also very quickly become connoisseurs of the product they are consuming. To compare it to other industries, not all wine is equal. Same with coffee. People look for certain elements within their wine and coffee and won’t consume any product that doesn’t contain those elements. Cannabis consumers will be no different. They will be able to tell the difference in the quality, flavors, and effects from varying extraction methods and ingredients, paving the way for a “top-shelf” market. This will provide more variety, both in product and in price points, for the consumer to choose from. These trends will take place in both the US and Canada, as well as global markets that legalize down the road.
EM: What’s the best way to future-proof one’s cannabis business?
Pete: When you’re getting into the cannabis business you can expect rapid growth. But at what velocity that growth will come to you is uncertain. This means that you have to plan for astronomical growth but prepare in a way that allows you to do it at your own speed – meaning, managing product quality and operational cash-flow.
Implementing scalable systems and processes is one of the more important aspects of future-proofing your cannabis business. If you’re having to start over with new facilities every time you want to grow, or completely new systems and equipment, you’re going to fall behind.
Another key example pertains to concentrates. Only about 20% of Canada’s LPs are currently in R&D for concentrates, yet this is clearly one of the biggest future areas of opportunity within the cannabis space. Operating the Vitalis CO2 Extraction System, our customers benefit from wide-array of operating parameters which allow them to truly leverage the selectability of CO2 and create an almost endless arrangement of products. Anyone who is not already producing, testing and perfecting concentrates will not be able to make up for lost time, so they should be preparing for the change in regulations now. With how saturated this market is becoming, you can’t afford to lose any time in your growth process.
Finally, because regulatory standards for equipment are only going to become more stringent in the future, not less, be sure to buy systems that not only meet current regulations but exceed the standards. That way, you’re not buying something that becomes obsolete and has to be replaced down the road. Examples include Safety and Pressure compliance, and GMP compliance.
EM: And lastly, a question that is becoming more relevant every time you consult the World Wide Web. What do you feel are the biggest misconceptions present in the cannabis industry today?
Pete: Where do we start? We have so much to learn about the plant and also about various large-scale production processes. The cannabis market has lived in the shadows and basements for decades and now we’re crafting an industry around this existing market. We’ve seen genetics evolve with greater cannabinoid content in the black market and how these genetics are being taken to a scale never seen before. There are many misconceptions as to how all this will scale and what the ultimate effect on our societies will be. If we continue to act responsibly, we believe that it will be a positive effect.
EM: Well said. Thanks Pete. Peace.
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