CO2 Extraction: The Crown Jewel of Cannabis Extracts

By Rich Hamilton
Published: October 7, 2020 | Last updated: May 11, 2021 10:28:33
Presented by Apeks Supercritical
Key Takeaways

When it comes to cannabis extraction processes, CO2 extracts are king. For the cleanest products with the highest level of cannabinoids and terpenes, CO2 extraction is the way to go.

With the rapid growth of the cannabis extract market, which includes tinctures and vape oils, people are more and more cautious of quality and safety when it comes to what they are buying, with one of the biggest considerations being the form of extraction used to produce these products.


Up until now, regulations on cannabis products have been less than stringent and some of the more unscrupulous companies have been known to cut corners by using chemical solvents such as lighter fluid (butane) and hexane in their extraction processes. This chemical solvent extraction not only results in the loss of valuable terpenes and properties from the cannabis but also poses a serious health risk, as the finished product can possibly contain harmful residues.

This issue is exactly why CO2 (carbon dioxide) extraction is seen as the best way of extracting CBD and THC from the cannabis plant. Carbon dioxide extraction guarantees you a safe, quality product through a process that kills harmful bacteria while ensuring the highest levels of terpenes and cannabinoids remain present.


Read also: The Pros and Cons of Various Cannabis Extraction Methods

How CO2 Extraction Works

Carbon dioxide extraction works by using pressurized CO2 to collect and preserve as many cannabinoids, terpenes, and essential waxes from the cannabis plant as possible.

The CO2 acts as a solvent at a specific temperature and within a specific pressure range but has the advantage of having none of the dangers associated with more generic, traditionally used solvents. Carbon dioxide extraction is so efficient and “clean” that it holds the coveted status of being a ‘green solvent,’ meaning it is a recyclable and cost-effective option whether it is being used for CBD or THC extraction.


Using CO2 provides a cleaner and healthier product in a more natural way as CO2 is essentially a natural byproduct that, for example, is produced by our bodies as part of the breathing process, as well as through the transpiration process in plants. You can’t get much more natural than that, and this makes it a preferable option in comparison to the use of solvents such as butane that contain harmful chemical residues.

Read also: Live Resin: The Holy Grail of Cannabis Extracts


Understanding Supercritical CO2

Supercritical CO2 extraction is widely regarded as the industry’s top standard form of extraction and is the process of using supercritical fluids to separate one component from another. Carbon dioxide is the most commonly used fluid in this process, although a co-solvent such as methanol or ethanol is sometimes used.

Carbon dioxide usually exists in a gaseous format when it is under a standard pressure and temperature. Supercritical CO2, however, is the fluid state of the gas, occurring when the CO2 is exposed to pressure and temperatures above its critical range.

In the process of supercritical CO2 extraction, the extractor takes CO2 in its gaseous form and runs it through a chamber where it is subjected to heightened pressure and a temperature as low as -70°F. At this temperature the CO2 gas changes into a liquid (supercritical CO2), which is when its unique properties can be exploited.

A supercritical fluid benefits from the properties of both a gas and a liquid maintaining the density of a liquid while filling the space like a gas. This supercritical fluid is passed through a chamber containing raw cannabis and dissolves the trichomes’ membranes, collecting more of the plant’s active compounds than any other extraction method can manage.

Read also: Getting to the Good Stuff: Cannabis Extraction Methods

Subcritical Extraction

While not as common as supercritical extraction, there is also a form called subcritical extraction: a similar process to the supercritical method but one that requires lower pressure, a lower temperature, takes more time, and produces less material. While not as efficient as supercritical extraction, the product produced through subcritical extraction is still of a superior quality compared to alternative extraction methods because, like its supercritical counterpart, it retains most of the plant’s terpenes, cannabinoids, and essential oils.

In terms of end product, supercritical extraction produces a thicker peanut butter-like substance due to the higher pressures and temperatures used which help extract larger molecules, including waxes, chlorophyll, and omega-3 and omega-6 lipids. These products are then removed during the winterization process (the removal of lipid waxes from crude extract). Following winterization, you are left with pure cannabinoid oil only.

CO2 Extraction and the Entourage Effect

While a clean product tops most people’s extraction wish list, perhaps the biggest benefit of CO2 extraction is its ability to pull plenty of cannabinoids and terpenes, helping preserve what we know as the entourage effect. Put simply, the entourage effect is the beneficial effect of all the compounds present in your cannabis working together as opposed to just one or two of these compounds working in isolation (THC or CBD).

The cannabis plant has more than 110 identified cannabinoids and hundreds of terpenes and flavonoids. Even though THC and CBD both have a wide range of benefits, an increasing number of experts now believe the real magic happens when you combine all terpenes and cannabinoids together. Lesser known cannabinoids such as cannabinol (CBN) and cannabigerol (CBG) are not found in as much abundance as CBD and THC, but potentially have their own health benefits.

Cannabigerol could have neuro-protective properties while CBN is thought to have links with pain management.

Read also: Exploring the Cannabis Entourage Effect

Combine this theory with terpenes and it looks like all bases are covered. The terpene alpha-pinene, for example, is thought to help counteract the memory loss that can be associated with THC. The terpene myrcene, on the other hand, is thought to reduce resistance in the blood-brain barrier and lead to a more comfortable passage of helpful chemicals through the body, meaning it could assist in enhancing the positive benefits of THC or CBD for the mind and body.

There are cases where THC or CBD isolate has its uses, however, for most people
a full-spectrum product produced using CO2 extraction is usually the best option, albeit not the cheapest. If you want quality, you need to be prepared to pay for it.

Ultimately, when you are purchasing any cannabis extract product, making the choice to go for a product that has been produced using CO2 extraction is the best, safest, and surest way to know you are getting a quality product. Carbon dioxide extraction ensures you are purchasing a clean product with no harmful chemical residue. The full spectrum of the extracts you are left with after CO2 extraction is also very attractive as it will, without a doubt, contain the highest level and array of cannabinoids and terpenes, encouraging the full exploitation of the entourage effect.

Finally, the fact CO2 extraction (and particularly supercritical CO2) extraction equipment is so expensive should be reassuring to you as a consumer, because you know the companies that are invested in this process must be serious about producing the best, most high-quality products for end users. There is no beating CO2 extraction when it comes to cannabis products.


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Written by Rich Hamilton | Writer, Consultant, Author of The Growers Guide

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Rich Hamilton has been in the hydroponics industry for more than 20 years, working originally as a general manager in a hydroponics retail outlet before becoming an account manager at Century Growsystems. He enjoys working on a daily basis with shop owners, manufacturers, distributors, and end users to develop premium products.

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