How is CBD extracted from the hemp plant, and can you make your own CBD-infused oil at home? Read our CBD extraction guide to find out. Cannabis distillation uses low pressures, gentle heating, and smart evaporation techniques to weed out only the purest cannabinoid liquid oil from crude.
CBD Extraction: CO2, Steam Distillation, and More
We’d like to thank CBDfx and Natural Hemp Solutions for supplying us with images of the processes used in their labs.
Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is an organic compound that is found in the cannabis plant, with the flowers of the hemp plant being the richest source. And in order for CBD to be added to a wide array of consumer products—think CBD oil, lotions, topicals, or CBD vape juice—the first step that manufacturers need to take is to extract it from the plant.
This guide will present the various CBD extraction methods, essentially explaining how full-spectrum CBD oil is obtained from the CBD strains of cannabis. Some of these methods have been used in various industries for decades or even centuries, far before CBD oil was even a thing. Examples include essential oil extraction, decaffeination (and caffeine extraction) of coffee beans, and even beer production. In all cases, the idea is the same: how to extract a valuable resource out of plant material.
If you are interested in the ins and outs of CBD extraction from cannabis strains high in CBD, here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used CBD methods.
Supercritical CO2 extraction
The word “supercritical” sounds real fancy, but it is actually a term that’s very commonly used in chemistry. Simply put, a substance in its supercritical state possesses characteristics of both a gas and a liquid.
When supercritical CO2 is used in CBD extraction, its gas properties allow it to effuse through all plant matter, while its liquid properties allow it to extract compounds efficiently. The exact process varies, and some labs start the extraction with liquid CO2 while others start with CO2 in gas form. In both cases, manufacturers add CO2 in a chamber that includes plant material and use the exact amounts of pressure and temperature needed for CO2 to reach its supercritical state. At this point, and with the help of some additional heat, CO2 acts as a solvent and causes the plant material to separate, carrying with it all the essential compounds. Once done, CO2 is separated from the organic compounds, and manufacturers are left with full-spectrum CBD oil.
While it requires qualified personnel and there are higher costs associated with the equipment needed for supercritical CO2 extraction, it is by far the most efficient and quickest method to extract CBD. It is also environmentally friendly due to the limited amount of emissions, and safer than extractions that use certain solvents as CO2 is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA.
- The most efficient method
- CO2 is regarded as generally safe
- Quick (once everything is in place)
- Environmentally safe
- Expensive (equipment costs)
- Needs qualified personnel
Steam distillation is a centuries-old process that’s commonly used to distill alcohol as well as extract essential oils from organics. The process is much less complicated than CO2 CBD extraction. First, plant matter is introduced in a distillation tank. With the use of water and heat, the produced steam carries oils to the top of the tank, and it is then passed through a condenser, resulting in a mix of water and oil. The mix then goes through further distillation to separate water and oil, and the result is full-spectrum CBD oil.
While this CBD extraction process is much simpler, there are some downfalls. It is more prone to error, much less efficient, and may potentially damage part of the essential oil profile of the plant. Due to these reasons, steam distillation is very rarely used to extract CBD nowadays, but many labs still use some type of distillation in the process of isolating CBD from full-spectrum oil.
- Relatively easy to perform
- Low cost
- Not very efficient
- Not consistent
- Resulting CBD oil is less potent
This method is also centuries old and is somewhat of a middle point between CO2 extraction and steam distillation when it comes to complexity and efficiency. It bears many similarities to CO2 extraction, albeit without the advanced methodology that’s behind the “supercritical” part.
In layman’s terms, this type of extraction involves mixing plant material with some type of solvent that will carry the essential oils given the right conditions and enough time. Some of the most popular natural solvents are alcohol (ethanol) and natural plant oils (including olive oil), with alcohol being much more efficient in dissolving the plant’s compounds. But due to the higher cost associated with ethanol, many manufacturers choose to go with synthetic solvents (hydrocarbons like butane or hexane), which may end up in lower quality, or even CBD oil that’s unfit for consumption if they’re not removed properly from the final product.
Solvent extraction is a delicate CBD extraction process and its pros and cons, as well as the consistency of the resulting oil, varies greatly depending on the solvent used. It can be more efficient than steam distillation if performed properly, but it carries a lot of risk and most labs choose CO2 extraction if they can afford it.
- More efficient than steam distillation
- Can be performed with natural oils
- Relatively safe if natural oils are used
- Varied results in final product
- Not as efficient as CO2 extraction
- Synthetic solvents are dangerous to handle
- Synthetic solvents need to be completely removed from final product
How to extract CBD at home
At this point, you may be wondering if there’s any way you can extract CBD at the comfort of your own home. The short answer is “yes”, but it really depends on how willing you are to do further research. The following is not going to be a real step-by-step guide, but it can serve as a starting point and give you some basic guidelines.
Olive oil extraction
Possibly the simplest way to extract CBD oil, as it only requires some CBD-rich bud, olive oil, and some basic kitchen equipment to ensure a steady supply of heat. If you’ve ever made cannabutter, then technically you have already utilized this method before. The only difference in this case, is that you are using hemp and olive oil—but olive oil can easily be swapped out for the oil or butter of your choice. This includes regular butter, coconut oil, hempseed oil, etc.
The first step for olive oil extraction is decarboxylation, i.e. activation of the compounds of plant material with the use of heat (there’s more info in the following section). Trimmed hemp flower in an oven tray heated between 240 and 280°F (115-135°C) for up to an hour should do the trick. Once this step is taken care of, the resulting activated cannabis is mixed with olive oil and heated at low temperature (ideally in a double boiler) for around two hours. The only thing left to do at this point is to use a filter to strain the mixture and separate the oil from the plant material. The result: CBD-infused olive oil.
While this is the easiest and least risky way to extract CBD oil, it is certainly not the most efficient. As with most DIY projects, there’s always room for user error. But even if you do everything right, you are going to sacrifice a large part of the organic compounds of the plant and you will produce less potent oil than a lab would. For these reasons, extracting CBD at home is an interesting experiment, but if you want to reap all the benefits of CBD it is advisable to get it from a reputable source instead.
Activation and purification
While technically not steps of CBD extraction, activation of active organic compounds and purification of CBD oil are two processes that are very important in CBD production. The most common methods used for these purposes are decarboxylation and winterization.
The active organic compounds of the cannabis plant come in their acidic forms. In order to go from THCA and CBDA to THC and CBD, manufacturers need to apply heat and decarboxylate the compounds—that’s the lab equivalent to lighting up a joint. Heat removes a carbon molecule from the organic compounds and turns them into their active counterparts.
Decarboxylation may take place before or after the extraction, and the exact methodology followed is highly dependent on this choice. But it is an essential part of the CBD oil production process, as non-activated compounds have little to no effect on the user.
While not as essential as carboxylation, winterization is a very common process that ensures that the final product of the extraction is as pure as possible. Simply put, the process of winterization employs solvents (usually ethanol) and low temperatures to ensure that lipids and other impurities are removed from an oil extract. This takes place as one of the final steps before full spectrum oil is obtained.
Winterization is not always performed, but it is a very important process when the final product is intended to be vaped. Some terpenes and other compounds are also filtered out during this process, but many manufacturers choose to add terpenes to their CBD oil after winterization.
CBD extraction: the takeaway
These are the most commonly used CBD extraction methods and, as expected, each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The main takeaway from this guide should be that the reason you may have seen “supercritical CO2 extraction” in ads and promotions is not just that it sounds cool (although it does!) Simply put, CO2 extraction is by far the cleanest and most efficient CBD extraction method—and a no-brainer for any lab that can actually afford it.
This doesn’t mean that all CO2-extracted CBD products are better by definition. But if a lab invests in the equipment that’s required for the most technically demanding extraction method, chances are that they know what they are doing. When in doubt, check lab tests, and always choose third-party tested CBD products from reputable sources.
Cannabis Distillate: Behind the Making of Pure & Potent Liquid Gold
Cannabis distillates are the ultra-refined extracts from the cannabis plant found in vape cartridges, edibles, and topical products worldwide. Distillates contain a single cannabinoid in pure and potent oil. Their amber-colored and translucent appearance does not start off that way. A series of extraction and purification processes convert the raw cannabis and hemp plant material into the marijuana distillate found in a significant amount of cannabinoid-based products.
In a world full of flavorful and aromatic full-spectrum concentrates, why does cannabis distillate seem to be everywhere? Why is this scentless and flavorless extract so coveted among producers? Our cannabis distillate guide breaks down the different distillate types, how they are made, and how they are used for medical and recreational use around the world.
What Is Cannabis Distillate?
As a new user, it can get confusing trying to wrap your head around the different types of cannabis extracts available. Simply put, cannabis distillate is a type of cannabis extract that has gone through a distillation process to create a pure product with nearly 100% CBD or THC content. During the distillation process, processors use distillation equipment to separate the targeted compound, particularly THC or CBD, from the solvent, and other compounds.
Cannabis and hemp are composed of hundreds of individual compounds including cannabinoids, terpenes, flavonoids, and other essential oils. In the end product, boiling techniques remove nearly all of the flavor and aroma that comes from the plant’s terpenes. While terpenes are believed to elevate cannabinoids’ therapeutic potential, they are not always welcome.
Since all of the wax, lipid, and undesirable plant matter is removed from the extract, distillates take on a translucent look. Its viscous and sticky consistency contains a nearly pure potency reaching up to 98% cannabinoids compared to the slightly lower levels (60 to 80%) of undistilled extracts.
For high tolerance users or medical marijuana patients needing high doses of the inflammation- and pain-fighting tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) compound, THC distillate boasts an impressively high concentration of the intoxicating THC. Its psychotropic and euphoric effects can help treat pain, muscle spasticity, glaucoma, insomnia, low appetite, nausea, and anxiety.
Cannabidiol (CBD) offers a more subdued and non-intoxicating alternative to the cerebral effects of THC. CBD distillate contains no THC and a nearly pure concentration of CBD. CBD distillate is a powerful extract meant to reap all of cannabis’ and hemp’s wellness benefits without the high. CBD has been shown to help treat seizures, inflammation, pain, nausea, depression, anxiety, and migraines.
Terpenes and Flavonoids
Cannabis terpenes are responsible for the unique aroma of each cannabis plant strain. While terpenes are found in minor levels in the cannabis plant compared to cannabinoids, they offer a robust aroma that can fill a room. Flavonoids are found in even lesser amounts and are responsible for the colors in your buds. Removing these compounds helps processors produce a uniform extract that can be flavored afterward.
What Is the Difference Between Distillate, Oil, and Isolate?
Cannabis oil goes by so many names, it is hard to keep track. Cannabis distillate always takes on a viscous oil consistency. It is a type of cannabis oil, but not all cannabis oils are distillates. The term distillate is reserved for oils that have undergone a distillation process after the oil has been extracted, winterized, and decarboxylated. Cannabis oils such as live resin, butane hash oil (BHO), Rick Simpson Oil (RSO), or hemp-derived CBD oil are similar but not the same.
Many people confuse distillate and isolate since they both focus on a single cannabinoid. In fact, isolate is technically a type of distillate since distillation techniques are used to refine the cannabinoid extract. Cannabinoid isolates, however, are completely pure crystalline powder forms of the therapeutic compound. Think of distillate as a less refined but equally powerful extract that elicits potent effects.
How Is Distillate Made?
Making cannabis distillate starts with a cannabis or hemp seed and undergoes a range of cultivation, extraction, and post-processing steps to remove the cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavonoids from the biomass (flowers, leaves, and stems). Here is a complete rundown of the supply chain and process used to distill the most valuable cannabis compounds.
Even before the distillation process is initiated, the cannabis plant must undergo multiple steps including being properly dried and cured after harvest. Once dried, the biomass can be extracted using a range of solvents including carbon dioxide, butane, and ethanol. The biomass is packed in a material column, drenched in the solvent, and may be further refined using color remediation techniques before ending up in the collection tank.
Some processors may perform a winterization on their extracts to remove fats and waxes using ethanol and cold temperatures. In addition, the extract may be decarboxylated to activate the acidic cannabinoids, such as THCA and CBDA, into their parent compounds: CBD and THC.
In the end, crude oil derived from the initial cannabis extraction process contains a THC or CBD concentration between 60 and 80%. The rest of the oil will be composed of different flavors and aromas (terpenes), vitamins, antioxidants, and other essential oils. After the extraction process, the oil needs to be further purified to become a distillate.
Cannabis distillation equipment varies but the process is very similar among the different distillation methods. Distillation reduces the pressure inside the apparatus to purify the cannabinoid at the lowest possible boiling point. A distillation apparatus heats the cannabis oil to a specific temperature to evaporate the desired cannabinoid from the oil without degrading it and then condensing the cannabinoid vapor back into a liquid.
Through steam distillation and fractionation techniques, distillation equipment can remove the ethanol, carbon dioxide, or butane solvent and almost everything else besides the cannabinoid through multiple passes.
Generally, the short exposure to heat during the process reduces the risk of degrading the highly volatile cannabis compounds. In addition, the best equipment creates a thin film of the oil onto the evaporative surface for more uniform heating and evaporation. Compounds with higher boiling points usually fall downward with the force of gravity and agitation into a separate residual collection vessel.
Cannabis distillation equipment ranges from small units for small-batch operators to industrial-scale models for larger operations. Running the crude extract through the equipment multiple times helps remove as much of the plant matter, terpenes, and flavonoids as possible. The first “pass” removes volatile solvents, gases, and water while additional passes remove terpenes and flavonoids from the final product.
Short Path Distillation
Short path distillation, also known as fractional distillation, is a purification method that uses vacuum pressure to lower the boiling points of the cannabinoids and terpenes. Since lower temperatures are used, the gentle short path distillation can carefully weed out the cannabinoids and terpenes from the end product without damaging them.
Short path distillation uses slow thermal heating to heat crude oil in a glass flask with a magnetic stirrer. As the temperature slowly rises, extractors can separate fractions of the distillate beginning with the terpenes and solvent. Each fraction is collected in a collection flask. There are usually three, one for terpenes and highly volatile compounds, another for CBD or THC, and the last one for cannabinoids with high boiling points.
Wiped Film Distillation
Wiped film distillation is a type of short path distillation. Under a vacuum, the cannabis oil is loaded onto a heated and rotating vertical cylinder. Wipers continuously wipe the extract creating a thin film on the evaporative surface. A chilled condenser in the center of the wipers condenses the THC or CBD vapor. Different collection vessels collect the CBD or THC distillate and any heavier compounds such as chlorophyll, wax, and salts below.
Rotary evaporation techniques use rotary evaporators, also known as roto-vaps, are common in the removal of the solvent from the final product. In a rotary evaporator, the pressure drops using a vacuum pump which reduces the boiling point of the solvent. A rotating distilling flask is filled halfway and heated using a water bath. The distillation flask is rotated creating a thin film of the cannabis concentrate. This increases its surface area to speed up the evaporation rate.
Falling Film Evaporation
Falling film evaporators include an evaporator and condenser and use a different boiling point to separate compounds from the cannabis concentrates. Using this method, the oil is drained from above into a heated column and falls downward creating a thin film on the evaporative surface. As the cannabinoids evaporate, they are collected on a chilled condenser. Due to its unique methodology, cannabinoid products with lower viscosity work well under this process.
How to Use Cannabis Distillates
THC and CBD distillate can be used in a variety of ways for medicinal and recreational consumption. Its versatility makes it a favorite among extraction companies and consumers. Smoke it, vape it, cook with it, or make soothing lotions and creams infused with THC or CBD. The possibilities are endless. Cannabis distillate can be found in a majority of products sold in retail shops today.
Dab Rig/Portable Vaporizer
Cannabis concentrates such as distillates are commonly consumed, or dabbed, with a glass dab rig or electronic nail (e-nail). Dab rigs and e-nails are great for use at home since they can deliver large doses using heated surfaces. E-nails, in particular, can maintain consistent temperatures using a digital controller and power source to perfectly vaporize cannabis oil. E-nails offer the convenience of not having to use a torch and estimate your heat up and cool down times for your nail.
Portable vaporizers and certain battery-operated vape pens are good for on-the-go consumption. Many vape pen cartridges contain CBD or THC distillate (some with additional flavors) that can be disposed of when finished. Other portable vape pens feature a heating chamber that can be reloaded with a CBD or THC distillate.
Pipes, Bongs, Joints
While dabbing distillates is the recommended method of consumption for sky-high potencies, many users may also smoke their distillates to enhance the potency of their dried cannabis flower. Simply add a tiny dollop of your cannabis oil on top of a packed bowl or within/outside your joint for an enhanced effect.
Cannabis distillates are a favorite ingredient in the making of edible products. Distillates can be infused into your favorite foods or beverages. Add this already decarboxylated oil directly onto your finished meal or use it as an ingredient as you cook. A distillate’s flavorless and odorless form allows you to create edible products that do not have the tell-tale taste and smell of the cannabis plant.
In addition, you can consume distillate sublingually for faster absorption and onset of effects compared to ingestion. It is recommended to bind the distillate to a carrier fat such as coconut oil, MCT oil, butter or other food-grade oil for better absorption since THC cannabinoids bind to fat. While the extract is already decarboxylated, it still needs help absorbing into the mucous membranes under the tongue. Warm up the mixture, stir until it is dissolved, and it is ready to go.
No matter what cannabinoid distillate you buy or produce, you can infuse it into a variety of topical products including lotions, creams, and salves. Recipes require cannabis distillates and a carrier oil such as coconut oil along with your favorite essential oils for aroma. The salve infused with cannabinoids can be applied directly to the affected area for localized relief without the high since the cannabinoids cannot reach the blood-brain barrier.
Why is Distillation Important?
Through distillation, operators can purchase a greater volume of marijuana trim or low-quality biomass and distill their desired compounds into an ultra-potent liquid.
Distillates have become the backbone of the marijuana derivatives market. Find them in nearly every product category. Their flavorless and scentless characteristics help create a consistent and repeatable cannabinoid product.
Those infused gummies and chocolates we all know and love are only possible with a foundation of distillates. And, if you are a fan of aromatic terpene compounds, they can be reintroduced back into the final product.
Luna Technologies: Automated Cannabis Extraction
High-quality THC and CBD distillate require an efficient extraction stage to remove as much of the cannabinoids from the cannabis plant. Luna Technologies’ automated extraction system, the IO Extractor, provides processors with a peer-reviewed hydrocarbon solution. Produce clean and pure marijuana distillates from any quality cannabis or hemp biomass using the power of hydrocarbons and automation.