The cannabis industry has experienced a great deal of growth over the past eight years, but it has not centralized thinking in that time; rather, it has diversified. This can be quite confusing for someone just getting into the space that wants to make everything under the sun and be the “best” at doing it, only to find that it is not water or ice or ethanol or hydrocarbon or carbon dioxide (CO2) that is the best solvent to use, but rather a mindful use of any of them!
In my opinion the “best” approach is defined by one that generates products that make a company profit without sacrificing quality and that the market embraces. Therefore, the products that a given market demands should dictate the type of extraction selected for your facility. So, before firing up all that used equipment that you are so proud of how little you paid for (I’ll revisit this topic), you’ll want to first consider the market needs and the products you want to make.
Every extraction method has benefits and challenges. From CAPEX (capital expenses), to OPEX (operations expenses), to FTE (full time equivalent), one must make numerous considerations to truly understand the economics of extraction and to harness and eventually enhance efficiency to yield both greater hourly throughput and improved weekly production.
The choice of solvent depends more on the desire for terpene preservation when considering the end products. If you desire to sell jarred concentrates directly from the extractor, hydrocarbon is a go-to. As much as water hash, pressed rosin, and other forms of “clean” extraction can preserve terpenes and make highly desirable products, the only way to do this consistently, en masse, is using butane/propane blends.
On the other hand, if edibles are your primary focus and you want to use only distillate in your end products, the need for terpenes is minimal, and ethanol can be a fine choice. Finally, should vape pens be the primary product produced, CO2 extraction works very well to fractionate off terpenes that can be reintroduced to distilled product for both improved flavor and viscosity without introducing terpenes derived from other sources and cutting agents alike.
The upfront expenses of CO2 extractors will drive many off. The amount of power required to chill large quantities of ethanol to -40°C or below can be daunting and expensive, particularly at scale. And the fear of combustible gasses under pressure and residual hydrocarbon in the product still have some people thinking that it is a safety hazard for employees and patients alike (no, I don’t believe that).
The fact is, all equipment costs money, all solvents cost money, all people cost money, and all facilities cost money. One must consider all these variables, with the abovementioned end products, to make sound decisions to further their business model. Some methods are more consistent, some give the operator more ability to “tune” the equipment for a desired outcome, some require facility enhancements, some require large volumes of solvent on hand, some involve so much power that an owner may not realize how much infrastructure needs to be licensed and built to run, let alone how much power is used to get to the finish line.
Second to terpenes, I think a business owner would consider the skill set needed to operate the extraction equipment and how many people are required to operate, clean, and repair a given unit throughout a shift. These variables are critical to your bottom line, since people are the most expensive and most important part of a business and need to be organized strategically. That being said, the more “craft” a process is, the more likely employees possess and protect specific details about how the unit is run. Moreover, you should not need a high-paid PhD to operate a given extraction unit but having one as a trusted adviser for troubleshooting purposes might not be a bad idea.
If equipment decisions drove success, then it would be obvious after 10 years in the industry which solvents and which manufacturers are the best. There really is a place for all extraction techniques and furthermore best practices within them as well as elements of craft or artisan production. When I began in the industry, I was in full support of CO2 as the only means of quality extraction. Now, I feel that hydrocarbon is “one-stop shopping” since it makes something directly of commercial use and can be also quickly enhanced for more efficient post-processing and the ability to dewax in-line as well as decolor (color remediation chromatography), decarboxylate, and devolatilize for downstream wiped-film distillation. Other large-format extraction techniques can be similarly optimized for post-processing, but none can directly make products as appealing as hydrocarbons along the way. Surely, others might feel differently as they read this; that is part of what keeps this industry so interesting.
Finally, when purchasing equipment, be it new or used (I said I’d get back), consider that you will always need people, solvents, and power. You may or may not need facility enhancements, but most of the costs of operation are not in the actual equipment itself. I always recommend buying new or refurbished, as a vendor, so that you can be ensured some level of support that will 100% be needed along the way. Many of the extraction units at auction might still be unopened and have appealing price tags, but they are usually sold without warranty and support. If they have been sitting long, it could likely require replaced O-rings, gaskets, oil, filters, and other “wear and tear” items that will cost you more in the long run to uncover than buying the most up-to-date model from the same manufacturer, minimally a unit the manufacturer has rebuilt or refurbished and has a seal of approval.
In the end, the more that you focus on the products you want to deliver to the market, their differentiation, and the experience of the end user, the more success you will have in the space. Cannabis extraction is messy and expensive. Find reliable equipment and more reliable people to support it if you want a chance at being good, let alone the best.