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How is CBD extracted from the hemp plant, and can you make your own CBD-infused oil at home? Read our CBD extraction guide to find out. Cannabidiol (CBD) can be extracted several ways, one of the most notable is CO2 Extraction. We break down the Pros and Cons of using CO2 over other methods.

CBD Extraction: CO2, Steam Distillation, and More

We’d like to thank CBDfx and Natural Hemp Solutions for supplying us with images of the processes used in their labs.

Cannabidiol, or CBD for short, is an organic compound that is found in the cannabis plant, with the flowers of the hemp plant being the richest source. And in order for CBD to be added to a wide array of consumer products—think CBD oil, lotions, topicals, or CBD vape juice—the first step that manufacturers need to take is to extract it from the plant.

This guide will present the various CBD extraction methods, essentially explaining how full-spectrum CBD oil is obtained from the CBD strains of cannabis. Some of these methods have been used in various industries for decades or even centuries, far before CBD oil was even a thing. Examples include essential oil extraction, decaffeination (and caffeine extraction) of coffee beans, and even beer production. In all cases, the idea is the same: how to extract a valuable resource out of plant material.

If you are interested in the ins and outs of CBD extraction from cannabis strains high in CBD, here’s a breakdown of the most commonly used CBD methods.

Supercritical CO2 extraction

The word “supercritical” sounds real fancy, but it is actually a term that’s very commonly used in chemistry. Simply put, a substance in its supercritical state possesses characteristics of both a gas and a liquid.

When supercritical CO2 is used in CBD extraction, its gas properties allow it to effuse through all plant matter, while its liquid properties allow it to extract compounds efficiently. The exact process varies, and some labs start the extraction with liquid CO2 while others start with CO2 in gas form. In both cases, manufacturers add CO2 in a chamber that includes plant material and use the exact amounts of pressure and temperature needed for CO2 to reach its supercritical state. At this point, and with the help of some additional heat, CO2 acts as a solvent and causes the plant material to separate, carrying with it all the essential compounds. Once done, CO2 is separated from the organic compounds, and manufacturers are left with full-spectrum CBD oil.

While it requires qualified personnel and there are higher costs associated with the equipment needed for supercritical CO2 extraction, it is by far the most efficient and quickest method to extract CBD. It is also environmentally friendly due to the limited amount of emissions, and safer than extractions that use certain solvents as CO2 is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA.

  • The most efficient method
  • CO2 is regarded as generally safe
  • Quick (once everything is in place)
  • Environmentally safe
  • Expensive (equipment costs)
  • Needs qualified personnel

Steam distillation

Steam distillation is a centuries-old process that’s commonly used to distill alcohol as well as extract essential oils from organics. The process is much less complicated than CO2 CBD extraction. First, plant matter is introduced in a distillation tank. With the use of water and heat, the produced steam carries oils to the top of the tank, and it is then passed through a condenser, resulting in a mix of water and oil. The mix then goes through further distillation to separate water and oil, and the result is full-spectrum CBD oil.

While this CBD extraction process is much simpler, there are some downfalls. It is more prone to error, much less efficient, and may potentially damage part of the essential oil profile of the plant. Due to these reasons, steam distillation is very rarely used to extract CBD nowadays, but many labs still use some type of distillation in the process of isolating CBD from full-spectrum oil.

  • Relatively easy to perform
  • Low cost
  • Not very efficient
  • Not consistent
  • Resulting CBD oil is less potent

Solvent extraction

This method is also centuries old and is somewhat of a middle point between CO2 extraction and steam distillation when it comes to complexity and efficiency. It bears many similarities to CO2 extraction, albeit without the advanced methodology that’s behind the “supercritical” part.

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In layman’s terms, this type of extraction involves mixing plant material with some type of solvent that will carry the essential oils given the right conditions and enough time. Some of the most popular natural solvents are alcohol (ethanol) and natural plant oils (including olive oil), with alcohol being much more efficient in dissolving the plant’s compounds. But due to the higher cost associated with ethanol, many manufacturers choose to go with synthetic solvents (hydrocarbons like butane or hexane), which may end up in lower quality, or even CBD oil that’s unfit for consumption if they’re not removed properly from the final product.

Solvent extraction is a delicate CBD extraction process and its pros and cons, as well as the consistency of the resulting oil, varies greatly depending on the solvent used. It can be more efficient than steam distillation if performed properly, but it carries a lot of risk and most labs choose CO2 extraction if they can afford it.

  • More efficient than steam distillation
  • Can be performed with natural oils
  • Relatively safe if natural oils are used
  • Varied results in final product
  • Not as efficient as CO2 extraction
  • Synthetic solvents are dangerous to handle
  • Synthetic solvents need to be completely removed from final product

How to extract CBD at home

At this point, you may be wondering if there’s any way you can extract CBD at the comfort of your own home. The short answer is “yes”, but it really depends on how willing you are to do further research. The following is not going to be a real step-by-step guide, but it can serve as a starting point and give you some basic guidelines.

Olive oil extraction

Possibly the simplest way to extract CBD oil, as it only requires some CBD-rich bud, olive oil, and some basic kitchen equipment to ensure a steady supply of heat. If you’ve ever made cannabutter, then technically you have already utilized this method before. The only difference in this case, is that you are using hemp and olive oil—but olive oil can easily be swapped out for the oil or butter of your choice. This includes regular butter, coconut oil, hempseed oil, etc.

The first step for olive oil extraction is decarboxylation, i.e. activation of the compounds of plant material with the use of heat (there’s more info in the following section). Trimmed hemp flower in an oven tray heated between 240 and 280°F (115-135°C) for up to an hour should do the trick. Once this step is taken care of, the resulting activated cannabis is mixed with olive oil and heated at low temperature (ideally in a double boiler) for around two hours. The only thing left to do at this point is to use a filter to strain the mixture and separate the oil from the plant material. The result: CBD-infused olive oil.

While this is the easiest and least risky way to extract CBD oil, it is certainly not the most efficient. As with most DIY projects, there’s always room for user error. But even if you do everything right, you are going to sacrifice a large part of the organic compounds of the plant and you will produce less potent oil than a lab would. For these reasons, extracting CBD at home is an interesting experiment, but if you want to reap all the benefits of CBD it is advisable to get it from a reputable source instead.

Activation and purification

While technically not steps of CBD extraction, activation of active organic compounds and purification of CBD oil are two processes that are very important in CBD production. The most common methods used for these purposes are decarboxylation and winterization.

Decarboxylation

The active organic compounds of the cannabis plant come in their acidic forms. In order to go from THCA and CBDA to THC and CBD, manufacturers need to apply heat and decarboxylate the compounds—that’s the lab equivalent to lighting up a joint. Heat removes a carbon molecule from the organic compounds and turns them into their active counterparts.

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Decarboxylation may take place before or after the extraction, and the exact methodology followed is highly dependent on this choice. But it is an essential part of the CBD oil production process, as non-activated compounds have little to no effect on the user.

Winterization

While not as essential as carboxylation, winterization is a very common process that ensures that the final product of the extraction is as pure as possible. Simply put, the process of winterization employs solvents (usually ethanol) and low temperatures to ensure that lipids and other impurities are removed from an oil extract. This takes place as one of the final steps before full spectrum oil is obtained.

Winterization is not always performed, but it is a very important process when the final product is intended to be vaped. Some terpenes and other compounds are also filtered out during this process, but many manufacturers choose to add terpenes to their CBD oil after winterization.

CBD extraction: the takeaway

These are the most commonly used CBD extraction methods and, as expected, each comes with its own advantages and disadvantages. The main takeaway from this guide should be that the reason you may have seen “supercritical CO2 extraction” in ads and promotions is not just that it sounds cool (although it does!) Simply put, CO2 extraction is by far the cleanest and most efficient CBD extraction method—and a no-brainer for any lab that can actually afford it.

This doesn’t mean that all CO2-extracted CBD products are better by definition. But if a lab invests in the equipment that’s required for the most technically demanding extraction method, chances are that they know what they are doing. When in doubt, check lab tests, and always choose third-party tested CBD products from reputable sources.

CO2 Extraction of Cannabidiol (CBD) – Process and Why it’s Important

CBD products are becoming increasingly popular, leaving many consumers wondering where to start. While it’s true there are almost more options than you can count in the world of CBD today, there’s one important factor everyone should consider before buying and consuming a hemp product: How it’s made.

In terms of CBD products, how the hemp oil is extracted drastically impacts the final result. Although all methods are attempting to do the same thing – create a highly concentrated version of cannabinoid for human use, there are definitely right ways and wrong ways to extract the oil. And, of course, even when you’ve narrowed it down to the right ways to perform the extraction (keeping in mind the purity and potency, among other things), there are still several different “right” ways being put into practice. All of this makes it extremely difficult for consumers to know which method really is best – and where they should be spending their money.

What’s most important to remember is that, even when dealing with the exact same hemp strain, the extraction method utilized to create the oil can produce very distinct results. Even at a chemical level, you can tell which method has been used to create a specific CBD product – and that can make the difference between you getting the results you want and feeling like you’ve wasted your money.

Understanding How the CO2 Cannabis Extraction Method Works

One of the most trusted ways to extract CBD from cannabis or hemp, the CO2 extraction method is categorized into three different types: supercritical, subcritical and mid-critical. Most professional and reputable companies use the CO2 extraction method simply because it’s the safest way to create the purest product.

Far from inexpensive, the equipment needed to extract CBD with CO2 is highly technical machinery that often is separated into three distinct chambers. As expected, each chamber has its own specialized task:

  1. First Chamber: Pressurizes and cools the CO2 to a supercritical cold liquid state
  2. Second Chamber: Holds the organic plant material
  3. Third Chamber: That captures the final product, including the used CO2 so that it can be used again

Clean and efficient, CO2 extraction is only used by professionals, as the technical knowledge needed to operate the equipment (not to mention the expense of getting your hands on it) keeps amateurs and hobbyists away.

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CO2 cannabis extraction works so well because of its ability to use pressurized carbon dioxide (that’s the CO2 part in case you missed chemistry class) to extract CBD from plants. Although other extraction methods can get the job done, CO2 works better because it becomes a solvent when frozen below -69 degrees Fahrenheit, turning it from gas form to its liquid state, and without presenting any of the risks that other solvents carry.

When using the supercritical CO2 extraction method, the liquid CO2 is pushed to the point of becoming a property that is halfway between a gas and a liquid. Known as a “supercritical” state, the CO2 now functions as both a gas and a liquid, making it ideal for chemical extraction because it doesn’t denature or damage the substance. For CBD products, which are either consumed by ingestion or absorption, making sure that the hemp oil is as safe and pure as possible, without losing any of the critical components that make it effective, is key. When done properly, CO2 extraction pulls out all of the essential trichomes and terpene oils, ensuring that the products you buy really deliver the benefits you’re looking for.

The Pros and Cons of the CO2 Extraction Method

Like anything, CO2 extraction isn’t perfect. While a popular and safe choice, there are some downsides to the process that should be considered, whether you’re a consumer or a CBD business owner. First, however, let’s focus on why CO2 really is one of the best extraction methods being used today, especially for CBD products.

Pros of CO2 Extraction
  • Incredibly safe, CO2 itself is used in a variety of popular foods and beverages as an additive. Carbonated soft drinks, for example, are made possible because of CO2.
  • The CO2 extraction method has also been used by many trusted food companies for years because it is so effective. In addition to creating essential oils, coffee companies use CO2 as a solvent to remove caffeine from coffee.
  • The process of CO2 extraction ensures purity, which is why it’s so important for CBD products. Specifically, the cannabinoids produced by this method retain their potency without being contaminated by chlorophyll and other toxic substances. For people wanting to buy the most pure CBD products as possible, CO2 extraction is the way to go. (It’s only a few steps away from being a complete isolate, which means all other compounds are completely eliminated.)

There are, of course, a few reasons why CO2 extraction isn’t the right method for everyone. Below are a few of the cons to consider…

Cons of CO2 Extraction
  • The equipment needed to perform CO2 extraction is costly, with even starter kits running close to $40,000 each. Because of the cost, CO2 extraction is impossible for many companies and individuals looking to extract their own hemp oil.
  • Even if you get your hands on the equipment necessary for CO2 extraction, it takes a lot of specific knowledge to make sure it’s operated properly and safely. Even an amateur chemist shouldn’t attempt to use CO2 equipment without professional training.
  • Because CO2 extraction equipment is expensive and because the knowledge needed to operate it creates a barrier to entry, CBD products created with the method tend to be more expensive than those created using a different technique. (Of course, as the saying goes, you typically get what you pay for.)

Deciding if CBD Products Created by CO2 Extraction are Right for You

Like anything you choose to consume, you have a choice in what you buy. While some consumers will decide that they’re fine using CBD products created using a different method, especially if it means they save money, a lot of people choose to exclusively use CO2 extracted CBD simply because it’s the safest most effective way to ensure they’re getting the benefits they want. At the end of the day, remember that how your CBD products are made will ultimately affect the end product, as well as your overall health.

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