CBD Distillation: The Key to High-Potency Hemp Oil
Have you heard the news? CBD distillation (cannabidiol) has become an increasingly popular method of producing some of the purest bulk CBD extracts (or cannabis distillates) on the wholesale market today.
The practice of distilling, however, is nothing new. Civilizations around the world have been distilling everything from water to perfume to liquor for centuries. And while technologies come and go, the same primary basic methodologies are still in use today, even after centuries of innovation.
Age-old distillation techniques are being used to power the modern growth of a multi-billion dollar CBD industry. As the industry continues to swell, clued-in product formulators and manufacturers are keeping pace with consumer demand for a wide range of high-potency CBD products and unique applications. Many companies are now using distillation techniques to isolate individual cannabinoids like CBD, THC, CBC, CBN, CBG, and many more.
The result of CBD distillation is a pure, potent distilled CBD extract. And in this post, we'll walk you through how we approach manufacturing truly exceptional forms of CBD distillate in bulk through the process of short-path distillation. Let's take it from the top: The distillation process begins with hemp extraction.
Crude Extraction First, CBD Distillation Second
Distillation is one of the last stages of the CBD manufacturing process. By the time cannabis-derived CBD oil is ready for processing in a commercial distillation system, it has already gone through several rounds of extraction, filtration, and purification. When hemp oil is ready for distillation, it's already highly refined and suitable for sale and consumption — distillation takes it one step further.
But before we cover specific CBD distillation techniques, we should briefly review the extraction process — also called the pre-distillation process — that comes before proper CBD distillation.
Winterization and Filtration
Winterization is a standard extraction method used to filter out fatty acids, waxy substances, and any other residual plant waste.
In this step, the crude hemp oil extract is combined with a solvent to strip, or extract, the essential oils from the industrial hemp material. CBD manufacturers typically use a supercritical carbon dioxide extraction (CO2 extraction) or a different viable organic solvent type to produce the first crude oil extract.
Once extracted, the cannabis extract is frozen at sub-zero temperatures to solidify, coagulate, and ultimately filter out fats, wax, flavonoids, and other undesirable compounds. What's left is a cannabinoid-rich crude oil or "slurry" that can then be filtered even more to remove impurities from the mixture.
Extraction Agent Removal and Decarboxylation
After winterizing the hemp oil mixture to filter out impurities and plant debris, the extraction solvent needs to be removed. Solvent extraction is typically accomplished with a rotary evaporator that uses a combination of high pressure and heat to evaporate the solvent, whether it's butane, hexane, or in most cases, CO2.
Once the extraction agent is successfully removed, the oil undergoes a process called decarboxylation. Essentially, cannabinoids have to be "activated" before the body knows what to do with them. It's the reason why eating raw cannabis won't get you "high." You could eat a handful of raw marijuana flower, but because your body doesn't know how to process the plant in its raw, natural form, you won't experience any psychoactive effects.
The major cannabinoids in hemp oil need to be "activated" before they are ready for use. This process is called decarboxylation.
Decarboxylation is the process of altering the chemical structure of hemp's natural cannabinoids via heat exposure and pressure to render them bioavailable to the human body.
Once the solvent has been removed, and the oil has been decarbed, what's left is a highly concentrated broad-spectrum CBD oil that contains the gamut of naturally-occurring cannabinoids and terpenes, but none of the residual precipitate from the initial extraction.
Many consumers prefer this less-refined form of CBD oil above distillates, isolates, or concentrates. That's because there is a near-mythical synergy between the joint compounds in the oil. This synergy is called the "entourage effect," because you're getting the complete profile of the original hemp plant and all its associated health benefits.
Full-spectrum hemp oils will always have their place in the cannabis industry. Still, for CBD purists who care about individual compounds and dose bioavailability, molecular distillation is becoming more attractive than ever.
For those in need of a quick refresher from chemistry class, this is for you: distillation is a natural process of purifying a liquid through a combination of heating and cooling. Distillation allows you to separate and isolate different compounds based on different boiling points and condensation temperatures. Through distillation, you can simultaneously select for specific desirable compounds while removing impurities at the same time.
Alcohol is a familiar example. To create a spirit with high alcohol content (whiskey or vodka, for instance), you must use distillation to separate alcohol from other materials. This separation is accomplished by boiling the starting solution at a low, constant temperature, causing the alcohol to evaporate and condensate.
If you can grasp the concept of alcohol distillation, then you can get the hang of CBD distillation, the subject of this next section.
What is CBD Distillation?
CBD distillation is the process of purifying cannabis-derived hemp oil to achieve the desired concentration and or potency for the finished product. Distillation is the technique that allows you to isolate individual compounds such as CBD isolate and CBD distillate, among others, and use them in product collections.
What Is CBD Distillate?
CBD distillate is simply a portion of hemp oil that has been extracted, filtered, and purified via distillation methods to isolate and separate specific compounds. In most cases, distillation is used to produce a concentrated CBD or THC extract, while stripping out undesirable compounds including terpenes, flavonols, chlorophyll, and other cannabinoids. Distillates tend to hover around the 80-90% mark in potency. Due to their higher potency and uprity, distillates and specific concentrates are commonly used in a variety of CBD products such as vapes, tinctures, edibles, and beyond.
Unlike crude hemp oil or refined CBD oil, CBD distillate has a bright yellow hue —almost gold in color — and bears the consistency of honey. CBD distillate is much milder in flavor and aroma as well. As a near-flavorless and odorless ingredient, CBD distillate is an ideal choice for product manufacturers. CBD distillate is suitable to infuse into end products such as edibles, foods, drinks, tinctures, and beyond. Since there is virtually no flavor to try and disguise, the possibilities are endless.
Compounds Separated Through Cannabis Distillation
A skilled technician has the ability to isolate and separate just about any compound through careful distillation. Here are some popular compounds that can be isolated through distillation:
- Cannabinoids — These are the desirable compounds we're looking for in hemp oil. They're naturally occurring compounds present in the cannabis plant. Each has its unique interaction with the body's cannabinoid receptors. Individual cannabinoids like tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), cannabinol (CBD), cannabigerol (CBG), among others, are sought after as individual, isolated cannabinoids for their unique therapeutic benefits.
- Terpenes — Terpenes are naturally-occurring plant compounds found in cannabis, hops, and various tree species. Terpenes are known for their aromatic properties, as well as their potential health benefits.
- Flavonoids — Another class of plant compounds, flavonoids are beneficial compounds found in all plants. Collectively, flavonoids contribute to the color, flavor, and aroma of plants.
- Lipids and Waxes — Natural, hydrophobic plant compounds that are typically extracted and discarded during CBD oil processing.
Now that we've covered what CBD distillation is, what the goals are, and some of the main compounds involved, let's take a look at how CBD distillation is actually performed.
An Overview of the CBD Distillation Process
In recent years, distillates have become synonymous with purity and quality. CBD distillation can indeed yield a caliber of CBD in its purest form, but to do so requires high-quality hemp ingredients and expensive, sophisticated equipment (not to mention a savvy team to run this distillation equipment effectively).
CBD distillation as a process requires more precision and attention to detail than simple solvent extraction or filtration. Why? Each piece of CBD distillation apparatus must be controlled with painstaking detail throughout the entire process, paying close attention to the temperature and vacuum pressure at all times.
Failure to control these variables just right can result in:
- Distillate oxidation
- Distillate impurities
- Destruction of the distillate
Hemp oils and the compounds therein are incredibly finicky, volatile substances. And indeed, distillation is, in essence, the process of exploiting differences in the relative volatility of individual molecules within the CBD oil mixture.
Different compounds have different evaporation points, which is why distillation requires such sophisticated equipment and methodology. THC content, individual cannabinoids, fats, waxes, and other residual plant compounds all boil and evaporate at different temperatures, making orchestrating the distillation process a complex undertaking.
While the same few basic principles apply across the board, a few different types of CBD distillation equipment are being used today.
Common Types of CBD Distillation Equipment
CBD distillation is both a science and an art, and to do it right, you need the proper equipment for the job. Here's a selection of the most popular distillation equipment to produce high-potency CBD oil.
Short-Path Distillation (Fractional Distillation)
Scientific research continues to uncover the unique health benefits of individual cannabis compounds — of which there are hundreds! Short-path distillation is the process of carefully heating hemp oil to isolate these individual compounds.
Short-path distillation involves distillate traveling a very short distance under pressure and at lower temperatures. This technique is useful because there is much less risk of damage to unstable compounds. After all, high-quality ingredients are expensive, and short-path distillation supports profitability by reducing precious materials' potential loss through excessive heat exposure.
Short-path distillation has the potential to yield an exceptional final product. Still, it requires an experienced equipment operator to make it happen.
Thin-film distillation is another method of creating high-quality CBD products. In this process, a thin film of oil is spread evenly over an evaporative surface. Combined with vacuum distillation and low boiling temperatures, this allows for steady evaporation without running the risk of damaging the natural compounds from heat exposure.
The following equipment types each incorporate thin-film distillation techniques.
Short-Path Wiped-Film Distillation
Wiped-film distillation is a type of short path distillation. It's simple, effective, and a good solution for high-volume production operations. In this technique, wipers create a thin film of oil around a heated surface. The liquid is then captured as vapor, condensed, and ultimately collected in a vessel as CBD or THC distillate.
Wiped film CBD distillation is most useful for increasing potency. Still, to achieve a high-quality distillate, free of residual compounds (terpenes, volatiles substances), multiple passes through the wiped-film distillation equipment may be necessary.
Relative to wiped-film, falling film CBD distillation is a more primitive film distillation apparatus. Falling-film distillation works by allowing oil to drain down the inside of a heated column (no wipers), functioning as a continuous evaporative surface.
It is a good option for steady throughput (high volume) but isn't quite so effective in separating compounds. This quirk makes falling-film distillation more suitable for initial screening of volatile components, such as removing ethanol or other solvents after extraction or removing terpenes.
Rotary evaporation is a solution mostly used in small-scale operations to remove solvents during the initial CBD oil extraction phase (pre-distillation).
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