3 Popular Cannabis Extraction Technologies

by | Apr 30, 2020

Written by Jessica McKeil

Jessica McKeil is a cannabis writer and B2B content marketer living in British Columbia, Canada. Her focus on cannabis tech, scientific breakthroughs, and extraction has led to bylines with Cannabis & Tech Today, Terpenes and Testing, Analytical Cannabis, and Grow Mag among others. She is the owner and lead-writer of Sea to Sky Content, which provides content and strategy to the industry’s biggest brands.

Extraction technologies today fall into three distinct categories: clean, relatively unprocessed rosin; solvent-based extractions; and highly technical distillation and isolations. Each has a place in the consumer market of concentrated cannabis products, but they each supply a different niche.

Although flower continues to dominate, extractions have earned a notable market share in recent years. BY 2027, extractions alone could make up $28.5 billion of the global cannabis industry, according to Grand View Research. Whether it’s consumers chasing a clean experience or consumer goods companies seeking high-potency and consistent single cannabinoids, the extractions market is quite a varied one, especially when we consider extractions are all working with the same plant.

Here we go through a comparative study of the three most popular extractions today: rosin, solvent-based, and distillate. What are they, and what are their advantages and disadvantages when stacked against one another?

Rosin Extractions Technology

Out of all the extractions, rosin is the most straightforward. Rosin presses combine heat and immense pressure to extract cannabis resin from a base plant material (sometimes flower, but most commonly kief). The resin contains high concentrations of cannabinoids and terpenes. The final rosin extract varies in color, clarity, and consistency, depending on the contents, temperature, and pressure used.

Rosin producers are passionate about the simplicity and cleanliness of the extract. With an experienced employee working the press, the final product is an exact replica of the profile of the source material, a rarity within cannabis extractions. The rise of the rosin press stems from a quest for pure, full-spectrum extractions.

With no solvents or additives required during the production process, rosin has little to no risk of contamination. Furthermore, rosin presses have come a long way from the rejigged t-shirt presses of yesteryear. The heat and pressure settings are highly adaptable to respond to nuanced differences between each batch of plant material. Plus, out of all the extraction technologies, it is perhaps the most affordable — even for small producers. With no volatile solvents nor serious safety concerns, rosin presses require almost no regulatory red tape or special handling.

The disadvantages of rosin come down to scalability. The current rosin press technology does not produce anywhere near the same outputs as solvent extractions. And, for the potency-chasers, rosin will never reach the highs of high-quality, solvent-based distillate or isolate methods. According to a High Times assessment, rosin extractions tend to hit just above hash. By their estimate, the average potency of rosin is around 75 percent. 

Solvent-Based Extraction

Solvent extraction technologies have been around the longest and have gone through the most controversies. In the early days, black market butane honey oil (BHO) labs were making national headlines for exploding in residential neighborhoods. But just as cannabis has gone through a legal evolution, solvent-based extractions have gone through a technological one. Solvent extraction tech today is cleaner, safer, and more profitable than ever before.

Most extracts on the market today come from solvent-based extraction techniques, using petrochemicals like butane and ethanol or CO2 pumped through a closed-loop system. No matter the solvent, the basic premise is always the same: flush solvents through a high-pressure chamber to wash cannabinoids and terpenes from the flower. Later, the solvent is evaporated off. Tinkering with the temperature and other parameters will pump out either high cannabinoid full-spectrum extract (HCFSE) or high terpene full-spectrum extract (HTFSE).

Unlike rosin, it is much more challenging to preserve a full-spectrum replica of the source plant with solvent-based extractions. High temperatures destroy sensitive compounds like terpenes and minor cannabinoids (ex: CBN, THCV, CBC).

The advantages and disadvantages of solvent extractions are in direct opposition to those of the rosin process. Where rosin stands out, solvents fail and vice versa. Petrochemicals, if mishandled, are incredibly volatile and dangerous. Producers must follow strict regulatory protocols, build highly specialized extraction facilities, and jump through several permitting hurdles before opening. The initial investment is substantially more for a commercial solvent extractor than for a rosin press.

But, the investment pays off in terms of output. While there are still waste considerations from a solvent extractor, the capacity and scalability are notable. Key technologies are coming online, which may improve the color and spectrum of standard solvent extractions. Color remediation and post-processing terpene reintroduction are two such examples.

Short Path Distillation and Isolate Extraction Tech

If rosin is the most straightforward extraction technology, distillate and isolates extraction stands at the polar opposite end. Cannabis distillates and isolates are frequently the basic ingredients in vape products, edibles, and beverages. Isolates are also fundamental ingredients for cannabis medicine and pharmaceutical research.

Producers have borrowed distillation and isolate extraction technologies directly from the chemical and pharmaceutical industries. While highly technical, the process essentially takes advantage of different boiling points for individual cannabinoids and terpenes. In a closed-loop vacuum system, a crude cannabis extract is brought to specific boiling points to target distinct compounds. Following evaporation, the vapor condenses in a secondary chamber, to form a pure single cannabinoid extraction. Within this extraction method, there are a variety of systems, from short path distillation to flash chromatography. There are also upstart technologies, like the Affinity’s molecularly imprinted polymer beads (MIPs) system, which produces distillate without the need for conventional chromatography at all. With some systems, it is possible to create an isolate with upwards of 99.9 percent purity.

The benefits of a distillate extraction are potency and purity. Producers have the choice of packaging the final extraction for direct consumer use or as an ingredient within an edible, vape cartridge, or another consumer good. The market for distillates will only continue to grow as cannabis finds its way into more products and pharmaceuticals formulations.

Unfortunately, the downside to this technology is it’s associated capital and operational expenditures. Combined with the need for a highly-skilled workforce, the costs associated with distillation technologies put them far outside the realm of possibility for a small to medium-sized company. Furthermore, the throughput and scalability of this system leave much to be desired.

Each Extraction Technology has a Place in the Industry

What is evident in the comparison of popular extraction technologies is the notable differences. At its core, extraction tech aims to concentrate the medicinally and recreationally valuable compounds from the raw plant material. Yet, every system produces a markedly different final product. From the full-spectrum and flavorful rosin extractions to the 99.9 percent pure cannabinoid isolates, every extract has a market base.