Kristina Etter   |   March 03, 2018

Achieving Ultimate Purity With Short-Path Distillation

Distillation in itself is nothing new. Distillation is used in many chemical engineering processes, and people have been distilling alcohol for centuries. Now, distilling cannabis oil is gaining ground and redefining quality, potency, and purity.
Before becoming a freelance cannabis writer, Kristina Etter, spent 20 years in corporate information technology with companies including Maytag Appliances, Wells Fargo Financial, and DuPont Pioneer. With a niche in mobile technology and…

Short path distillation individually isolates and concentrates cannabinoids and terpenes in cannabis extracts. These concentrated distillates can be more than 99% pure. Short path distillation produces clean and clear distillates through separating and concentrating the compounds found in cannabis oil into three distinct categories:

  • Cannabinoids – by controlling the temperature and pressure certain cannabinoids can be extracted individually.
  • Terpenoids and Flavonoids – lighter volatiles which also have unique boiling points are collected individually, then reintroduced to the final product or used for alternate products.
  • Contaminants – by-products like residual solvents and pesticides can be removed.

 

How Short Path Distillation Works

No solvents are necessary to refine the crude cannabis oil because short path distillation separates the multiple compounds in cannabis through achieving various boiling points. When heated to specific temperatures, specific compounds can be collected in intervals.

The actual design of the distillation may vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but in most cases, the distillation package includes:

  • Heating equipment – needed for evaporation
  • Condensers
  • Chilling units
  • Vacuum pump and gauge – for sucking and trapping air in the heating equipment
  • Receiving Vessel – used for the collection of fractional distillates and testing purity.

As the terpenes and cannabinoids each reach their boiling point, they are vaporized and then condensed and collected in a receiving vessel. The black non-volatile product left behind can be discarded, and the final product is a clear, golden color. However, the final product has no taste or aroma because the terpenes have been stripped. 

 

The Great Terp Debate

Terpenes boil at different temperatures than cannabinoids, and while the overall goal may be potency and purity of the cannabinoids, terpenes can get lost in the process unless extra care is taken to preserve the terpenes as well. Short path distillation does create the opportunity to pull off the terpenes using vacuum pressure and save them for later. After the distillation is complete, the terpenes can be blended back in with the final product to recreate the original taste and aroma of the plant, or even add in the terpenes of other plants like strawberry to enhance the flavor.

This process of reintroducing terpenes has been a source of debate. Some equate the process to adding in artificial flavors in foods. However, when blending the terpenes collected from the same plant, some will argue it allows for the original effect of the strain, or Entourage Effect from the original terpene profile.

 

A PR Problem

In the past, distillation processes may have received a black-eye along the West Coast where the quality of the distilled product usually started out poor. In a conversation with David Bonvillian, of Elite Cannabis, he reminds, the quality of the product has a lot to do with the outcome of the final product, as distillation can concentrate pesticides.

“Distillates in California started with a negative connotation. Because the products being distilled started out dirty or gross, so distilling was used make the product ‘look pretty’ – but the product itself is still dirty.”

Starting with a high-quality organic material can make a significant difference in the overall outcome of the distillation. 

 

The Future of Distillation

Science and chemistry are shaping the future. Bonvillian stated they are experimenting with short path distillation to achieve cannabinoid conversions, actually causing CBD to change into THC, or creating other isomers which can’t even be tested because there’s simply no standard.

Using the distillates produced at Elite Cannabis, as well as, chromatography processes to remove the THC from oils, Bonvillian’s team can produce a full spectrum cannabis oil without any THC. In addition, they are isolating and concentrating cannabigerol, or CBG for recombination into cannabis products for therapeutic benefit. However, he stated the major push is for THC crystallite which is odorless and colorless and can be easily added to food products for edible companies.

“The East Coast has a different market as well,” Bonvillian commented, “they take a more medicinal approach and there’s a larger demand for isolates, in comparison to the markets in the West.”

As the cannabis market continues to mature, regulations and standards, along with advanced chemistry processes like short path distillation will continue to increase the integrity of the cannabis industry, provide safe and effective products, and build confidence in consumers.

 

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