Ethanol Extraction Process for Cannabis: Is it Toxic?
May 13, 2019

Ethanol Extraction Process for Cannabis: Is it Toxic?

Is ethanol a safe extraction method?
Nicole Richter Nicole Richter / Updated on May 13, 2019

Ethanol Extraction for Cannabis

The growth of the marijuana market means that consumers want more than flower. Back in the ‘good old days,’ you felt fortunate to have a few grams of brick weed in your hands. These days, marijuana strains routinely have 20%+ THC and are available in 33 states plus D.C. (10 states plus D.C. allow recreational use, alongside 23 states with medical marijuana programs).

The modern-day cannabis user wants more! Manufacturers have listened and now sell oils, tinctures, edibles, and concentrates. The latter can contain up to 90% THC and should only be used in miniscule amounts. To produce these fantastic products, it is necessary to extract the cannabinoids from the marijuana flower.

There are three main methods of extraction: Hydrocarbon, CO2, and ethanol. Hydrocarbon extraction involves using butane or propane as a solvent which is passed through the raw plant matter to collect terpenes and cannabinoids. The mixture is heated to evaporate the solvent and leave behind the extract.

CO2 extraction involves using carbon dioxide which is subjected to extremely high pressure in metal tanks until it becomes a supercritical fluid. Next, the fluid takes out the necessary compounds from the plant, and it is separated; leaving behind concentrate such as wax and shatter.

Ethanol extraction involves soaking raw marijuana in the solvent to pull the trichomes into the ethanol. The weed is removed, the liquid is filtered, and the alcohol is purged from the material that has been extracted.

Regardless of what your goals are, each method of extraction has pros and cons. In today’s article, we look at whether ethanol extraction is safe or toxic.

Why Use Ethanol in the First Place?

Of the three extraction methods, ethanol falls in the middle when it comes to pricing. It can cost up to $100,000 to get a high-quality set of equipment, but the enormous storage capacity it provides is well worth the price for many companies.

The Capna Ethos-6, for example, is capable of holding up to 136 liters of ethanol, and it extracts a whopping 3600 grams of material in just 40 minutes. The extraction container holds up to 60 liters, and the collection vessel has a capacity of 40 liters. It even recovers 85% of the solvent used. The result is enormous savings on power usage because of the huge amount of product you can extract in a short space of time.

In contrast, a 5-liter CO2 system costs $100,000, and you need to pay around $400,000 for a 25-liter system. You can find hydrocarbon machinery for $20,000, but once again, it is incapable of extracting anywhere near the amount of material as ethanol extraction equipment.

Overall, you can extract thousands of pounds of cannabis per day using a single ethanol extraction machine and a few add-ons to keep conditions under control. According to an employee of Lucid Labs, who use ethanol extraction, the process is like a gigantic tea bag and teacup. You can take large vats of ethanol and dunk enormous amounts of weed into these vats.

Ethanol extraction is arguably safer than the other two methods of extraction for employees. Hydrocarbons are extremely flammable, and while all extraction must be performed in tightly regulated environments, there are risks attached. CO2 can also suffocate workers if there is a leak in the room. Companies get around this issue by installing alarms that go off if the quality of air in a room is compromised.

Most experts agree that ethanol does not necessarily provide the best end product. Hydrocarbon extraction does a fine job of bringing out terpenes while CO2 extraction captures carotenoids and flavonoids. Overall, however, ethanol is widely believed to be a ‘safe’ method of extraction; but is this really the case?

Is Ethanol Extraction Potentially Harmful?

Ethanol is a highly flammable liquid that is volatile and colorless. We have been using it for centuries after it was uncovered as a by-product of fermentation for alcohol. It mixes well with water and other solvents and is used in household items including perfumes, biofuel, beauty products, and various solvents.

You may think that ethanol is perfectly safe. After all, it is widely used. As it happens, ethanol is a dangerous chemical. First of all, as we mentioned above, it is highly flammable with several flash points. A ‘flash point’ is the minimum temperature at which the vapors of a material can create an ignitable mixture in the air near the material’s surface. A low flash point means a material is easy to ignite.

For the record, the flash point of 100% ethanol is just 61.88 degrees Fahrenheit which is often less than your room temperature. The flash point increases when the ethanol solution is diluted. For example, 90% ethanol has a flash point of 63 degrees. 60% ethanol can ignite at 72 degrees while 10% ethanol can ignite at 120 degrees. It is important to know all of ethanol’s flash points before considering its use in marijuana extraction.

As you may know, ethanol is the intoxicating agent found in alcoholic beverages such as wine, beer, and spirits. It is also a fact that long-term misuse of alcohol can increase the risk of medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, and liver damage.

Therefore, the question is: Should you avoid marijuana extracted via ethanol? The answer is a definitive no, as long as high-quality extraction equipment is used. The substance brings out cannabinoids and terpenes, but can also bring out unwanted molecules which may lead to a bitter taste.

The main thing about using premium quality ethanol extraction equipment is that it evaporates all of the ethanol. In other words, the end product contains minimal traces of the substance. There are also new solvent recovery processes which help recover up to 98% of the ethanol.

The biggest issue with ethanol extraction comes when you attempt it at home. One of the oldest methods of evaporation involves placing the alcohol solution in a flat-bottomed Pyrex dish and allowing it to evaporate for up to two days. As you can imagine, this isn’t a very efficient method at all! A truly idiotic method involves trying to evaporate the alcohol over an open flame!

Top of the range ethanol extraction equipment is designed to be safe and produces marijuana concentrate free from solvents. Capna’s Ethos 4 machine removes up to 98.5% of THC from the plant while leaving the chemical compounds of chlorophyll behind. It utilizes a freezing, low-pressure system to remove the need for the time-consuming processes of winterization and dewaxing. It also uses a closed loop system to guarantee that the ethanol never leaves the system.

Final Thoughts on Ethanol Extraction for Cannabis

There is no question that ethanol itself is a toxic substance. It has been likened to poison yet we are only too happy to allow it into our bodies through the consumption of alcoholic beverages and use of beauty products.

When it is used to extract cannabinoids from marijuana, it carefully removes the necessary materials, but sophisticated equipment means the solvent is almost entirely evaporated. We don’t recommend attempting ethanol extraction at home; it is highly flammable, and unless you have about $50,000 to spare, you don’t have the equipment needed to evaporate ethanol completely.

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