Large Scale Ethanol Extraction
Designing a Large-Scale Cannabis Lab: Getting Started
Of course, every form and process of cannabis or hemp extraction comes with its own inherent advantages and disadvantages. However, out of all the most popular forms of extraction, ethanol’s primary advantages are its relative safety, fast learning curve, and high throughput. All of which allows it to scale to large capacities easily.
Typically, when planning a new cannabis lab, most people ask the wrong questions. Almost invariably the first question is: “What form of extraction is going to be utilized?” The focus being on whether to use ethanol, CO2, or butane (hydrocarbons).
But in fact, the first question needs to be: “What’s my end-product?”
Start by asking:
- What products or cannabis derivatives do you intend to manufacture and sell?
- What products are selling in the market now vs. what will sell in the future?
- How do you ensure that your lab will be adaptable enough to meet evolving market demands?
Answering these questions now will not only ensure future success but also reduce risk across all areas of your business. The answer to the question: “What’s my end-product/s?” will inform various decisions such as staffing, equipment purchases, budgeting, the size of the space you need, safety and compliance—just to name a few!
For example, although ethanol is perhaps one of the easiest and most affordable forms of extraction to scale to achieve high throughputs (for most end-products) this may not be the case for all cannabis or hemp derivatives. Or, in other words, while ethanol is easy to scale to produce large volumes of say, distillate, crude extracts, and isolates; it would not be very suitable to perform large scale terpene isolation for vape cartridges, or a large-scale shatter or live resin production. That’s why that first question of knowing your desired end-product is so important.
To sum up, first choose which products you intend to manufacture and market. And secondly, decide on which form of extraction is best suited for your intended products.
Thirdly then, we come to the discussion of scaling your process.
Depending on your budget, these early steps could look something like this:
- Maybe you’ve purchased a few bench top units of multiple forms of extraction methods and tried your hand at them. Methods such as water (for “bubble” hash), maybe even tried your hand at ethanol, hydrocarbon or CO2 if you have the means). Or, perhaps a friend runs a lab and offered for you to visit a few times and to learn the basics of extraction.
- With some experience you’ve decided the extraction method you like and which products you like to produce. Also, which ones you intend to sell because you’ve done your homework and you know there’s a market for them.
- You then took the next step and outfitted your lab fully with (we’ll say for our example) a small-scale ethanol extraction set–up; including not only extraction equipment but any filtration equipment, evaporation equipment, as well as even decarboxylation and distillation equipment.
- (NOTE: At this point, at a rough estimate, you’ve potentially spent around $100,000-250,000* – but this money and research has been well worth it.)
- You spent the time to dial–in this process and produced your desired end-product, and more importantly you’ve been marketing and selling it successfully. You’ve been able to begin making a profit and save this money for the next big move for your lab’s evolution.
Now, finally, you’re feeling confident and ready when you say; “I’m ready to scale up and build my lab up to the next level; to large scale production.”
Scaling Your Lab: Two Strategies
At this point we’ll describe two different strategies we’ve seen work well, and most often encounter in labs that are scaling successfully:
- Organic Growth: This first method involves identifying pinch points or limiting parts of your process (where material seems to build up) and investing your capital accordingly. This could mean purchasing a Falling Film Evaporator (FFE) and ditching most of your roto-evaporators, or, maybe buying large IBC totes to store solvent or solution in, or a walk-in freezer to freeze biomass or solvent. For example.
Eventually these small incremental investments add up. The bright side to this method is that it never stops and it’s low risk. If you are diligent and allocate funds each quarter towards equipment investment, you will always be upgrading and improving your lab.
- Go Big or Go Home: The second option is for those who are confident, have the money to invest, and are perhaps willing to take on a bit more risk. You know what end-products you intend to produce and at what scale you intend to produce them. You then spec out new equipment, buy a whole new extraction suite, and make the leap to the next level. Perhaps even liquidating some obsolete extraction equipment and/or assets along the way to raise funds.
Of course, this second path is riskier and costs a whole lot more upfront but has a better chance of pushing you ahead of your regional competitors quickly if it works out.
What Equipment do I Need? What’s my Budget?
Continuing with our example from above, if you’re going to use ethanol as your chosen form of extraction and your goal is to scale, you’ll need to ensure that there is still a level of inherent adaptability in your operation to enable production of a range of desired end-products.
We have included a degree of flexibility into the following example of a basic, large scale ethanol extraction set-up. This extraction “suite” covers you from biomass through to distillate but would also be able to produce crude at scale. And with a few more extra steps and pieces of equipment, it could also easily produce CBD isolate as well.
Obviously, it should be made clear that the following list is non-exhaustive and that all prices and potential revenues are rough estimates and are used here for illustrative purposes only.
Also, note, there are many small and ancillary pieces of equipment beyond this list that would be needed for a fully integrated and efficiently functioning lab. However, the following list does allow us to make some rough estimates for illustrative purposes by taking into account some of the largest equipment purchases necessary.
|Extraction||Ethanol Storage Tanks (300 gal)||$3,100*|
|2x DC-40 Direct Chiller||$130,000*|
|2x CUP Series Centrifuge Utility Platform||$250,000*|
|1x Walk in Freezer||$5,000*|
|Filtration||Multi-stage Filtration Skid||$23,000*|
|Evaporation||1x FFE-60 Falling Film Evaporator||$190,000*|
|2x 50L roto-evaporator||$63,000*|
|Decarboxylation||3x 50L Glass reactor vessels||$11-50,000*|
|Distillation||2x RFD-27 Rolled Film Distillation||$300,000*|
Estimated throughput for this extraction suite as follows, based on the assumptions:
- 10% biomass potency, and,
- 3:1 (biomass:ethanol) saturation ratio.
Let’s do the math. With a lab operating 24 hours a day, and with 3x of these suites (estimated $3,000,000* investment of equipment), this lab could potentially be:
- Extracting 10,000 lbs of biomass / day
- Producing 720 kg of Crude extract / day
- Producing 300 kg of Distillate / day
With a wholesale value of $4,000* / kg of distillate – that equates to $1,200,000* Gross Income / day
Okay, I’m ready to scale. Who do I need to Hire?
Continuing with our example and using the extraction suite as described, each operational “suite” would need approximately six staff to operate it. Distributed roughly as follows:
- 1 operator milling biomass, packing bags, and placing in freezer
- 2 operators on the CUP-30’s and filtration skid
- 1 operator running the FFE-60 and the Roto-Evaporators
- 1 operator running the Glass reactors for decarbing
1 operator running the 2x RFD’s (Most likely the highest trained and paid operator)
One of the other great advantages to scaling your production with ethanol extraction in comparison to other extraction methods is that no matter the scale at which your operating, the process will be roughly the same, while being relatively easy and safe.
This allows your lab to reduce overhead by not needing to immediately hire highly educated staff. The process is simple enough to bring in operators with minimal extraction experience and train them quickly.
However, it should also be emphasized that investing in your people, whether it be through hiring more well-paid and educated staff, or by encouraging and offering current employees more training and education opportunities—is an absolutely vital, and often overlooked component, to a highly efficient and successful lab.
Safety and Compliance Considerations
Running a lab of any sort is not without its risks. But as we have mentioned above, ethanol is considered one of the safest and easiest forms of extraction for large scale cannabis extraction. This is because you are not dealing with high pressures of any kind. You are utilizing relatively non-extreme temperatures (below 200˚F), and only very mild vacuums that are necessary to remove and re-collect the ethanol for re-use.
Another underestimated factor in scaling your cannabis extraction lab is the need to invest in industry-experienced and qualified contractors who can equip your site with the best and most efficient HVAC, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure as possible. Having these qualified professionals work closely alongside you is an understated investment that will result in tangible rewards for you and your business.
Perhaps the two most important safety and compliant considerations are:
- Compliance: Ensuring your lab is built to be C1D2 / D1 compliant and that you understand and practice these accompanying regulations. Not only is it important that you and your staff remain safe but that you remain within compliance in your local jurisdictions—saving you money down the road by preventing costly re-builds.
- Solvent Safety: How much solvent (ethanol in our case) you can have in process at any given time, and how much you can store on-site at any given time. This factor is dictated by your local jurisdiction and regulations and will have a large determining factor on your lab’s actual and realistic daily throughput of material. It will also inform where your capital should be invested to solve any issues that arise with this restriction.
This last point about solvent storage is a very important one because you may be able to, on paper, design a lab that can achieve the throughputs that you need. But your local regulations may not allow you to hold the necessary amount of ethanol on-site or in-process to achieve those throughputs.
Knowing these restrictions in advance of purchasing equipment can save you time, money, and regulatory hassles.
Above all, when building your lab, especially when attempting to scale to industrial sizes, it is imperative and cannot be understated that you work as closely as possible with your local AHJ, (authority having jurisdiction) inspectors and your fire marshal to ensure you are proceeding as compliantly and safely as possible.
Not only because laws and regulations change between countries, from state-to-state and from county-to-county, but also because building out your facility to be compliant can be one of the costliest steps in designing and building your lab beyond your initial equipment investment. It pays to work closely with those who are inspecting and regulating your lab, this way you understand the regulations clearly and make as little mistakes as possible during build out – saving you lots of capital and mitigating business risk.