Terpene Isolation and Extraction: Grabbing a Share of the Cannabis Market
Plenty of research and money is being invested in isolating and extracting terpenes from cannabis plants. Chris Bond details what terpenes are, how they’re extracted, and why they are so important in the commercial marijuana market.
The future is bright for numerous aspects of commercial cannabis products and their derivatives. Selling a nickel bag on the corner is no longer the way to make it in the rapidly changing world of the legal cannabis market. Many individuals and companies are using naturally occurring components of the cannabis plant, known as terpenes, to try and grab a share of the market. Some are investing huge dollars into research and development of terpene isolations and extraction methods.
What are Terpenes?
Skip over this next sentence if you don’t want the scientific definition of terpenes borrowed from a February 2016 article from the journal Frontiers in Plant Science: “Terpenes are classified in diverse families according to the number of repeating units of five-carbon building blocks (isoprene units), such as monoterpenes with 10 carbons, sesquiterpenes with 15 carbons, and triterpenes derived from a 30-carbon skeleton.”
Terpenes exist naturally in any plant that has an aroma. They are especially high in those plants that are often used in the fragrance and essential oils industries (citrus, rosemary, lilacs, etc). Cannabis is no exception. There are between 100 and 200 known terpenes in marijuana, depending on which strain is being examined. There are strains with less, but no strain thus far has been identified as lacking any terpenes. Cultivation and cross-breeding can change the abundance and profiles of individual terpenes.
Read also: Promoting Terpenes in Cannabis
Terpenes are mostly derived from the flowers of cannabis, though they do appear elsewhere in the plant. The buds of most strains abound with trichomes, the small, but abundant crystal, hair-like structures found on the flowers of many cannabis strains. These are known by some growers as “sugar leaves” because of the allusion to being dusted with a white or light-colored powder. These trichomes serve the dual purpose of terpene production and accumulation. Not surprisingly, terpenes are found on hemp as well as cannabis containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). The amount and distribution of various terpenes in a cannabis plant will depend on such variables, besides parentage and cultivar, as the environmental conditions in which the plant was cultivated as well as the maturity level of the individual plant being mined for its potential terpene yields.
Why Extract Cannabis Terpenes?
The race is on for terpene extractors to develop the cleanest, purest, best-tasting isolates. There is great commercial value in the extraction and isolation of cannabis-derived terpenes. Some of the value lays in their suspected health benefits, others value terpenes for the ability to add flavors or fragrances into various products, ranging from just a hint to a full-fledged onslaught of a particular aroma. Many individual terpenes derived from cannabis are found in other plants as well, such as limonene (lemon) or pinene (pine).
The potential markets for terpene products are diverse. Terpenes can be incorporated into air diffusers and air fresheners, candles, and oils for topical use as well as for burning. They can be incorporated into the edibles and consumption markets, too. Terpenes can be used for cooking and baking or can be included in formulations of hash oils and dabbing products.
For those looking at terpenes as another arrow in the quiver of naturally-derived therapeutics or remedies, terpenes fit the bill for many. Terpenes are thought to have as much health benefits in their own right (possibly even more) than THC or cannabidiol (CBD) respectively, though for additional impact they are often combined in various ratios and formulations. Some are touted for their antibacterial and anti-microbial properties, some for their antiseptic properties, and some even for their anti-carcinogenic traits.
Others may be used and sought after for their anxiolytic (anxiety reducing), anti-inflammatory, and sedative effects. In addition to their usage in products marketed towards consumers of cannabis, terpenes are also used commercially in the production of biologically derived pesticides in agriculture, for flavoring in food processing, and in other non-cannabis derived pharmaceuticals.
Read also: Using Terpenes and Scent to Choose Cannabis Strains
How to Extract Terpenes
The isolation of terpenes involves removing specific components of an individual plant, which are then extracted and used for hundreds of different applications both by the amateur concoctions maker and the most qualified lab chemists. Many cannabis terpene isolation methods were borrowed from the long-standing and proven practices of the fragrance industry that has been isolating terpenes from other botanical sources for centuries. Others have been developed in recent years specifically aimed at pulling out the purest elements of cannabis. Many of these methods are proprietary or patent-protected, while others extract terpenes with crude, do-it-yourself methods, much like the production of moonshine. There are numerous ways to get the desired results.
On the commercial side, most companies in the extraction business typically rely on some form of one of two established extraction methods. Currently, the most common methods are by way of the supercritical CO2 extraction process or the ethanol extraction process, which isolates terpenes with alcohol which has been infused into ground cannabis. Though other pioneering extractors are experimenting with methods such as cold trapping with nitrogen, oxygen, and reverse osmosis, which involves the use of vacuum pumps to conserve the desired volatile compounds that may have otherwise been gassed off using the simpler steam distillate method. The steam distillate method takes advantage of the different boiling points of specific terpenes, but the extractor must know what these points are in order not to lose the desired compound mistakenly with too high of a temperature or too long a distillate procedure. These extraction methods can be performed in as little as two hours, or take as long as 24 hours depending on the complexity of the method. The more sophisticated and complicated the process of terpene isolation, the more difficult the removal of undesirable isolates is. In addition to the extraction of the desired compounds in their purest forms, fats and naturally occurring, but unwanted, chemicals such as chlorophyll are squeezed out of the cannabis plants during the extraction process.
For those with an inquisitive mind, who prefer to do everything for themselves or got an A in chemistry (I didn’t), there is a vast array of commercially produced terpene isolating equipment that can be purchased for home use. Like anything else, there is a big range between prices, quality, and functionality in the equipment available. If the demand for such equipment from the hobbyist or small-scale producer should increase, then it is likely costs may come down some, but this is not likely in the immediate future. Unless you are willing to invest some serious cash and are confident in your lab safety skills, this may be best left for the professionals.
With a continuing interest on both the part of the consumer and manufacturers, terpene isolation is likely to get more sophisticated and, over time, many more unique cannabis terpenes will be extracted. The range of products commercially available made from or with terpene extracts will likewise increase. Science and continued research may yet add to the remarkable medicinal benefits of the cannabis plant by way of making use of its many and varied terpenes.
Written by Chris Bond | Certified Permaculture Designer, Nursery Technician, Nursery Professional
Chris Bond’s research interests are with sustainable agriculture, biological pest control, and alternative growing methods. He is a certified permaculture designer and certified nursery technician in Ohio and a certified nursery professional in New York, where he got his start in growing.