Extracted Episode 9: Extraction 101 with Vitalis
We figured it was about time for our podcast to tackle the topic of extraction. After all, it’s in the name. Not to mention, it’s the focus of our business. In our third and final “Live from Lift & Co. Expo” episode, we caught up Vitalis co-founders Joel Sherlock and James Seabrook to talk about all things extraction. From how the process works, to different extraction methods and the importance of full-spectrum oils, we covered a lot of ground.
Vitalis is an extraction systems manufacturer based in Kelowna, BC. Recognized as having the Top Extraction Equipment for the past two years at the Lift & Co Canadian Cannabis Awards, Vitalis supplies and services the extraction machines used here at Valens. We were excited to get the lowdown on how Vitalis got their start and take an in-depth look into extraction technology.
Bringing extraction out of the garage.
In the early days of cannabis extraction, the first machines were mainly in garages and small labs. The majority of equipment was understandably being used at a small scale. Joel and James recognized the limitations and decided there was an opportunity to create something bigger and better. James says they spent long days and late nights working through the challenges and prototyping equipment. Early trials often involved working with hops to simulate the extraction process for cannabis. When the machines were ready, Vitalis got them into the field in the US and continued to evolve the technology into what it is today.
“There’s an opportunity here to make something that is better for the consumer to use, compliant with already existing regulations, and specific for cannabis.”
Extraction basics: The journey from plant to premium oil.
Before we go too far, let’s take a closer look into the principles of extraction with Vitalis as our guide. James notes that the most relatable comparison for cannabis extraction is essential oils. Take for example lavender extract or vanilla extract. They both started as biomass – bean for vanilla or flower for lavender. In either case, the compounds are removed and converted into oils using a solvent.
In Valens’ extraction process, once the cannabis biomass goes into the machine, CO2 is flowed in. CO2 as a solvent can be in two phases: Subcritical (liquid much like water), or Supercritical (much like a gas with a liquid-like density – think dense, heavy fog). James says supercritical CO2 is great for extraction because it “can be very selective at different temperatures and pressures.” Once the extraction process is finished in the machine, it goes into a separator and as James says “that’s where the magic happens.” The oils are removed from the CO2, and the CO2 is then recycled in the process.
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. As Joel points out, “A lot of people think you can just put cannabis in and pull the THC out.” He draws a parallel to the oil and gas industry in the sense that you can’t simply “reach into the ground to pull out jet fuel.”
“You need specialized equipment and a really experienced team to isolate those volatiles.”
The case for CO2.
The extraction systems at Valens all use CO2 as a solvent, as opposed to ethanol or hydrocarbon (butane and propane)*. Vitalis says they design with CO2 for several reasons. “It’s more versatile and in the process, the CO2 carries those desired compounds,” says James. “In cannabis, it would be the cannabinoids – THC and CBD being the most common ones that are extracted and also the terpenes which give you that beautiful aroma of the flower.” Vitalis believes that delivering this “whole plant experience” will be critical for distinguishing products in the recreational market.
According to Vitalis, the other advantages of using CO2 include scalability and speed of implementation. As they point out, extraction using hydrocarbon is fast but then requires additional “solvent removal steps.” By contrast, CO2 takes more time to extract, but requires less time in the lab. There are also fewer safety concerns with CO2 than with other extraction methods.
Keeping terpenes intact.
While distillates will certainly be an important part of the market, Vitalis agrees that the ability to create full-spectrum terpene-rich oils is critical. Similar to wine or beer, it’s not necessarily strength that matters as much as personal preference for flavour. As Joel says, “Nobody orders a beer and says, what’s the strongest beer you have?”
“Ultimately for the grower, there’s so much other value in that plant. And if you just make an extraction process that only gets THC, you’re wasting so much of nature’s beauty.”
Excitement & opportunity.
As Vitalis continues to grow their team and evolve their extraction technology, they’re excited for what comes next, both in the medical and recreational markets. Joel and James are proud to have their company based here in Kelowna as they travel the world, educating people on their systems and the endless potential of cannabis.
Listen to the full episode for more cultivation insights and stay tuned for more episodes live from Lift.
*Update: Valens now uses five methods of extraction, with each method offering a variety of end-products.