Thanks to changing laws across the United States, cannabis concentrates are rapidly rising in popularity. For suppliers, extracting cannabinoids and terpenes from cannabis requires sophisticated scientific processes with the equipment and talent to match. Therefore, setting up an extraction lab poses many challenges—ones that Tully Stroud, Chief Science Officer for Elite Molecular Labs, recently faced.

Elite Molecular Labs is part of Elite California, one of California’s largest cannabis oil companies. The company recruited Stroud at first for his agricultural expertise. In addition to his background in viticulture and enology from Cal Poly, Stroud has been working in vineyards his whole life. He joined the team to upgrade their grow operations, but Stroud was promoted to Chief Science Officer when senior company officials noticed his degree in chemistry. He now manages both the grow operations and the cannabis extraction and refinement.

Due to increasing demand for their product, Elite Molecular...

Cannabinoids must be extracted from the raw plant material by physical or chemical means. Cannabis lab employees have several extraction methods and equipment to choose from, and the choice depends on the desired final product. Chemical extraction using ethanol, CO2, or hydrocarbon (commonly butane), produces crude extracts; the equipment needed depends on the solvent. Large-scale, automated extraction machines must be expertly engineered to endure the temperatures, pressures, and volatile compounds used in the extraction process. According to Stroud, performing crude extractions is laborious, dirty work, so automotive or mechanical experience benefits employees running these machines.

Pioneering a booming industry comes with numerous challenges. For Stroud, the biggest difficulty arose when obtaining the extraction equipment and getting it up and running. Slow lead times from manufacturers and troubleshooting the first- and second-generation extraction equipment took considerable time. But even more important than choosing the right equipment, said Stroud, is understanding the regulations in the municipality. Often, only certain extraction methods are permitted. Industries making products using similar techniques, like essential oils, operate under less stringent regulations. Taking the time to research these regulations is essential when building an extraction lab.

After the crude extraction, the cannabis product may be further refined using more elegant scientific techniques. Crude extracts can be winterized—frozen in ethanol to remove excess fats and waxes—prior to decarboxylation to activate compounds like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Next, technicians purify individual cannabis components by distillation, where steam, heat, and vacuum pressure are used to achieve precise boiling points for separating compounds. Afterward, they measure final product potency using liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry.

This post-production lab is Stroud’s main turf and is where his chemistry expertise comes into play. After distillation, he may further perform complex isolation and isomerization reactions, which require titrating very precise amounts of liquid. Stroud finds the Chemyx high pressure syringes and pumps to be invaluable in dispensing exact volumes for his experiments.

Oil-based products are very viscous, and because cannabis is tightly regulated, Stroud must take extra care packaging his products.  According to Stroud, Chemyx high pressure syringes are the only products capable of providing enough pressure to accurately dispense these thick products.

Those working in the cannabis industry today are at the forefront of a once underground field. Stroud is excited be on the cutting edge, using his creativity and scientific knowledge to develop new protocols and products.

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