Almost every week, we have a conversation with someone who wants to get into the cannabis industry. They’ve done some research and decided to use CO2 extraction to get oil from cannabis. The conversation usually follows these lines:
“Hi, I want to buy the biggest system you have. I’ve got a 300-acre farm and I’m going to fill it with marijuana and I want to process it and extract the oil, using CO2 as a solvent.”
Us: “Where are you in the process?”
Them: “Nowhere yet, but I’m planning to be up and running in one year.”
In the burgeoning cannabis industry, people often have big dreams of processing entire fields of plant material and producing gallons of oil in a matter of weeks. If we didn’t care about the customer, we’d happily sell them our largest extraction system. But we want our customers to succeed and for that reason, we advise caution.
It’s all well and good to have big dreams and there’s no reason why those dreams can’t become reality, at the same time; be patient, exercise restraint, and scale up. There are 3-4 steps to go through before running a full-scale industrial processing facility. In addition to scaling, it is also vital to choose a reputable supplier, who can provide a system that conforms to industry standards. In any industry, support from suppliers is crucial, and it’s especially important for people who have little or no experience. This article outlines the ideal way to scale up, and what to look for (and ask) when selecting an extraction supplier.
The Pilot Phase
Begin with a small system, and teach yourself how to extract oil. Call this the Pilot phase. Spend a small amount of money, buy a small system and begin experimenting. Run extractions on a variety of plant materials – hops most closely resembles the marijuana plant, and is relatively cheap. During this phase, you’re researching techniques and teaching yourself the parameters of extraction. You have to understand the process so take advantage of training offered, and customer support phone lines. Keep copious notes of everything you do, weighing and measuring everything. Once you’ve got the desired result, and are able to repeat the result consistently, you know you have an operating system and it’s time to scale up. Apeks Supercritical will accept trade-ins of our smaller systems for a larger one.
Mid-size Industrial Phase
There are significant differences between the pilot phase and the mid-size industrial phase. Typically, in the pilot phase, you’re working with laboratory apparatus, like glass beakers and instruments. In a mid-size industrial phase, you’re working with steel equipment and the systems are purpose-built, or “skid-based”, on a far larger scale than the pilot phase. At the pilot phase, the process is far more straightforward, but increasing capacity also increases complexity. The operating parameters may be different. Your system will likely have a higher flow rate than the smaller one. You may find that operating the larger system at the most efficient levels requires modifications to the parameters that the pilot system used. Differences can be caused by things like how the temperature transitions across a larger and thicker vessel. This phase closely resembles a full production operation, but is still on a smaller scale. Extended operation allows you to catalog and study results on a broader scale. This phase is typically done in the location where the full production operation will be. This allows you to take advantages of existing infrastructure, zoning requirements and any permits needed (Edwards, 2012). This stage is a risk mitigation step so that you can move to the next stage confidently, knowing that your process and your system works well and that you have the experience to move up.
Full Production Phase
Once you’re comfortable at the mid-size industrial phase, it’s time to scale up again. You can either purchase a larger system, or add more systems of the same size. Both have pros and cons – another mid-size system provides redundancy but only doubles capacity. Significantly higher capacities are usually significantly more expensive and are limited on flexibility. The good news is that you now have a really good idea of what parameters you need to operate at, so if you opt for the much larger system you can be very specific about what you want, and be confident that your investment will allow you to be successful. At this point, you can start thinking about harvesting those 300 acres and kicking into high production!
Finding Support and Suppliers
Another thing people new to the industry need to consider is which company to buy from. It seems that a new company offering CO2 extraction systems pops up each week, making outlandish claims, to make themselves be seen and heard. For customers, it’s hard to decide which company is reputable and which are fly-by-nights. It’s even harder to decide in an industry that has no regulation or control, so there’s no way to tell which claims are legitimate and which are bogus. In any other industry, you might decide based on price or design because you know that all products are produced to the same basic level of quality by a variety of regulations. For example, if you’re buying a toaster, you know that they’re all produced to a certain electrical standard, so it’s simply a matter of price and style. You know the toaster won’t blow up when you plug it in at home. Below are a few things to look for to sort the good from the bad.
In-house technical prowess is also vital, with engineers on staff who can help resolve problems. Reverse engineering a system is all well and good, but without a fundamental understanding of the system, a subtle change of design could have a significant impact on equipment, and the end result. Call up one of the companies who have reverse-engineered a system and they’ll have no idea how to fix a problem because all they did was copy/paste. They don’t understand the “why” behind the “how”. Companies who have developed their own systems have a strong understanding of the engineering behind the systems. They didn’t copy another system and hope for the best. They spent time and money, employed engineers, and developed their own system. They developed systems that met or exceeded accepted industrial standards, even though, in this unregulated industry, they weren’t required to.
Warranties, Certifications, and Manufacturing Codes
In the cannabis industry, you need to find a company who has experience in the field. Find companies who have been around for a while, are certified, and who are reputable. Look for companies offering a warranty – they’re confident their systems will perform the way they’re supposed to, and are willing to stand behind them. Certifications are also important – it means the company has taken the time and effort to get the accreditation, even though it’s not required. Apeks Supercritical was founded in 2001, is ASME certified, and our systems feature UL listed industrial control panels. We also offer a 3-year warranty on all of our equipment!
ASME (American Standards of Mechanical Engineering)
ASME code is the boiler/pressure vessel code dictating the proper construction of a vessel that’s designed to be used under pressure. Simply put, it means the vessel met the standards of mechanical engineering. Some companies build to ASME specifications, but don’t automatically have the vessel stamped because of the additional cost of having it stamped, which they are reluctant to pass on to the end user. Don’t be afraid to ask about ASME coding and whether the system qualifies for ASME stamping. Below a certain size (6-inch diameter, or the “6-inch rule”), ASME code is not required. Some industries or even countries (Canada for example) require ASME stamping on all vessels. They are not a federal or a state requirement, but can be a customer or an industry requirement. It’s possible that systems will cost more if they are ASME stamped because the process of getting certified can be expensive. In addition to other requirements, external inspectors are called in to ensure compliance.
Ask: “Can your system be ASME stamped?” if the answer is: “Yes, but it will cost more,” you know the vessel was created to ASME standards. Currently in the USA, ASME stamping is not required, so unless you or your company requires it, there’s no need to spend the additional money to have the vessel stamped. Knowing the company builds systems to code should be sufficient.
UL listing is a worldwide electrical code, which ensures safe operations because the electrical systems conform to a rigorously testing standard. All Apeks Supercritical’s automated systems feature UL508A listed industrial control panels, so you know that they are built to the highest safety standard we could find. We pay attention to every detail during assembly, including the torque applied to every screw that’s part of the electrical circuits in our control panels. Everything is labeled, documented, and we are regularly inspected by UL to ensure we’re following the standard. Apeks has never had a noted variance in any inspection, and the inspections are often done without notice.
Knowing which codes are important and why they’re important, is vital to weeding out the companies who promise big things, but are selling a system that’s not compliant and could be unsafe/unreliable. Find companies with years of experience, who employ their own engineers, who can answer questions if you run into trouble, and lean on their years of trial and error – if you’re experiencing an issue, chances are they’ve seen it before and can quickly and easily help you resolve the problem. Their depth of knowledge means that they’ve experimented with a variety of vessels and have perfected the science of extraction, and have the data to back it up. They’ve been there, done that.
Buying a system from a company that’s been around for a couple of years is a big gamble. You’re investing a lot of money, and saving a few pennies in the beginning could cost you a lot of dollars down the road. Weeding out the reverse-engineers and the companies with limited experience is time well spent, and is the only way you’ll find out who really stands out from the crowd! Companies promising customers that they can leap into high production with no experience are, at best, misleading the customers, and at worst, deliberately setting them up for failure.
People thinking about getting into the business need to do extensive research and ask questions of extraction companies like:
- What are the operating parameters of your system?
- What training do you offer?
- What customer support do you offer?
- Can your systems be ASME stamped?
- What other certifications/industry standards do you have?
- What is the temperature transition rate in your larger vessels?
- What is the flow rate?
- What is the pressure rate of your systems?
- Are your systems subcritical or supercritical?
- Is your system fully automated?
- What type of building improvements do I have to make to accommodate your extractor?
- Do you have a plan that allows for growth if my business succeeds/grows quickly?
- How much plant material can your system process per day?
- Are there alternative uses of your extraction system other than cannabis?
- What are the benefits of CO2 over other extraction processes?
If we were an unscrupulous business, that initial conversation could easily have gone like this:
“Hi, I want to buy the biggest system you have. I’ve got a 300-acre farm and I’m going to fill it with marijuana and I want to process it to extract the oil.”
Us: “Okay! I have a 2,000-liter system I can sell you! What’s your credit card number?”
The tiered approach to full production has many advantages, the most important being your ultimate success. We want our customers to succeed and, while a huge sale would be welcomed, we want the customer to get the most out of their system and be successful. Customers need to educate themselves and learn about the business, the systems, and the process before jumping into high production. This approach will ensure a successful outcome, rather than frustration and failure.
See Apeks Supercritical at the 6th CannaGrow Expo October 28-29, 2017 in Denver, CO.
Edwards, D. (2012, November). Scaling up step by step. Biofuels International, 44-46.
For more information on ASME, go to https://www.asme.org/about-asme/standards