Solvent-Based vs. Cryogenic vs. Supercritical CO2 Extraction: Which Is Best?

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Some of the most common methods of cannabis extraction include solvent-based ethanol extraction, cryogenic extraction, and supercritical CO2 extraction. Each method has its pros and cons, but it’s important to choose the one that will set your cannabusiness up for the greatest chance at long-term success.

Higher Yields Consulting Solvent-Based vs. Cryogenic vs. Supercritical CO2 Extraction: Which Is Best?

We recently sat down with Yogesh Jhamtani, Co-Founder and CEO of Buffalo Extraction Systems, to discuss the differences between the ethanol, cryogenic, and CO2 extraction methods and how to choose the right one for your cannabusiness. 

Here’s what you need to know about the most common methods of cannabis extraction and why we recommend supercritical CO2 extraction for the best, most sustainable results.

Cannabis Extraction Methods

In relation to the cannabis industry, Jhamtani explains that extraction refers to the process of isolating beneficial compounds (e.g., cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, etc.) from the plant material to be used in products for various purposes, including:

  • Recreational. Products for personal enjoyment.
  • Nutraceutical. Products that offer various health benefits.
  • Pharmaceutical. Medicinal products that are approved for treating specific health conditions.

There are numerous extraction methods available, but the most commonly used methods are solvent-based (using either ethanol or CO2) extraction and cryogenic extraction.

Solvent-Based Ethanol Extraction

Solvent-based extraction is the most common type of cannabis extraction — and also the most traditional. Most often, this method uses ethanol to dissolve the plant materials. Once the ethanol is evaporated, it leaves behind a concentrated product. 

This method is typically less expensive than others, but the final product may still contain impurities such as peripheral fats, lipids, waxes, and so on.

Supercritical CO2 Extraction

Supercritical CO2 extraction is a type of solvent-based extraction that uses CO2 instead of ethanol. Like ethanol, CO2 mixes with plant materials to help extract the essential compounds. But CO2 is a much greener solvent — since it’s taken from the atmosphere, it has a negative carbon footprint.

Higher Yields Consulting Solvent-Based vs. Cryogenic vs. Supercritical CO2 Extraction: Which Is Best?

“CO2 flows like a liquid, but penetrates like a gas,” Jhamtani says. “So it’s a very efficient method to extract.” Within the cannabis industry, supercritical CO2 extraction is preferred for pharmaceuticals. But beyond cannabis, it’s also commonly used for processes such as coffee decaffeination and hop extraction for beer. 

This method is more expensive than ethanol extraction, but it’s also safer and more efficient, it leaves no residue in the final product, and it can be very selective for extracting specific cannabinoids. 

Cryogenic Ethanol Extraction

Cryogenic extraction is a relatively newer method that, according to Jhamtani, makes traditional solvent-based extraction much faster. This method has several steps:

  • Cooling. The temperature of the ethanol is reduced to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit (which is also minus 40 degrees Celsius).
  • Mixing. The ethanol is mixed with dried plant material in a centrifuge, drawing the plant compounds into the ethanol.
  • Filtration. Impurities are removed from the mixture.
  • Evaporation. The ethanol is evaporated, leaving only the concentrated product.

Cryogenic extraction is not only faster than solvent-based (either ethanol or CO2) extraction but also better suited for handling larger volumes. However, there’s still a risk of residue being left in the final product, and, if handled irresponsibly, ethanol use in general can result in poor-quality product. 

Choosing the Right Extraction Method

According to Jhamtani, solvent-based, cryogenic, and supercritical CO2 extraction each have their advantages and disadvantages. The right method for your business may depend on your business goals and the resources you have available. 

“If you prioritize safety [and] elective extraction and have the resources for an initial investment, the way forward is CO2,” he says. “If you are dealing with large volumes, have the money to be compliant and ethanol readily available, and are catering to the recreational or nutraceutical industry specifically, [cryogenic] would do the job.”

With that said, as the cannabis industry continues to progress through research, and as countries in South Africa open up to cannabis, it’s important to keep sustainability at the forefront. Opting for CO2 extraction may be a bigger upfront cost, but it’s also a much greener choice that results in better-quality product, overall.

Investing in the Future

While each of the various extraction methods has its place in the industry, we at Higher Yields Consulting recommend supercritical CO2 extraction. Yes, it’s more expensive up front, but it’s an investment that will set your business up for greater efficiency and longevity. 

Future-proofing your cannabusiness pays off big time. So don’t let a higher initial cost deter you from achieving higher yields, higher-quality product, and higher profits over time.

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