Hydrocarbon extraction separates compounds from raw plant material using chemical solvents like propane or butane. The extraction process occurs in an extraction facility using equipment like extraction tanks, recovery and vacuum pumps, and more. Closed-loop extraction ensures the volatile chemicals are safe to employ during the extraction process.
Take what you need and leave the rest behind—that’s the long and short of it when it comes to hydrocarbon extraction.
But any extraction technicians and facility managers worth their salt know there’s so much more to this scientific process than that overly simplified directive. It’s a highly technical operation utilizing hydrocarbon solvents to extract the premium botanical compounds deep within the plant material.
Botanical industry professionals hold the hydrocarbon extraction method in high esteem, mainly for its extreme efficiency, low cost, and the resulting quality of the final product. It’s always been a popular choice among extractors, and now even those outside the professional realm are realizing the true potential of this botanical practice.
A hydrocarbon is what happens when you combine heat, pressure, and time—lots and lots of time, like, 300 million years worth of time. Hydrocarbons are compounds made entirely of hydrogen and carbon atoms, a byproduct of decaying plant matter that succumbed while dinosaurs were still walking the Earth.
Depending on how those hydrogen and carbon atoms are arranged, the various molecular structures result in a diverse range of hydrocarbons. For botanical extraction, we’ll focus on two specific expressions of hydrocarbons: Butane and Propane.
Butane and propane are flammable hydrocarbon gases and byproducts of natural gas processing. Each produces carbon dioxide, water, carbon monoxide, and soot when combusted, and each presents unique benefits such as fueling vehicles, heating homes and cooking food. Concerning the extraction process, butane and propane serve as valuable solvents, but more on that later in this article.
Thinking back to high school chemistry class, you might remember the old rule of thumb, “like dissolves like.” In more technical terms, polar/ionic solvents dissolve polar/ionic solutes, and nonpolar solvents dissolve nonpolar solutes. Water, for instance, is a polar solvent, and it’s capable of dissolving salts and other polar molecules, but water cannot dissolve nonpolar molecules such as oil.
Hydrocarbon extraction employs this same time-honored practice of laboratories across the globe, employing cold, liquified butane or propane to wash essential oils and compounds from plant matter. The product of that extraction process is then refined for recreational or medicinal use.
There are multiple approaches to the extraction process, and, as such, many heavy-duty pieces of equipment are needed to make the magic happen.
We’ll stick to gear that’s specific for closed-loop hydrocarbon extraction.
This is the method that utilizes hydrocarbon solvents like butane, propane, and carbon dioxide (CO2); since these particular solvents are considered volatile, the best practice is to go with the closed-loop method, which utilizes an extractor vessel that’s completely closed to the outside atmosphere—it’s safe, stable, and reliable.
Here’s the crucial equipment you’ll need for closed-loop hydrocarbon extraction:
After the flowers, leaves, petals, stems, and roots of the plant are “washed” with solvents, you are left with botanical extracts.
These bioactive plant compounds from hydrocarbon extraction can be applied to many consumer uses. Indeed, extracts show up in the marketplace in many diverse products.
Here are some of the most popular products that contain botanical extracts:
Hydrogen and carbon atoms can arrange themselves in a dizzying number of ways—and each of these arrangements results in different types of hydrocarbons. However, for hydrocarbon extraction, there are two clear favorites among extraction technicians and facility managers:
Both hydrocarbons have been used for food extractions for nearly 50 years, mainly because propane and butane are organic solvents capable of the dissolution and dispersal of other carbon-based substances (remember, like dissolves like). And it doesn’t get much more organic than plant matter.
Propane and butane are effective and safe solvents when utilized under the right circumstances by professional extractors. Employing these solvents with closed-loop extraction equipment in an extraction facility with suitable ventilation and proper gas detection systems, extractors can get more out of the plants with these hydrocarbons than any other solvents.
The quality of your solvents is critical to achieving a safe extraction free of unwanted chemicals and unpleasant tastes and aromas. For example, conventional butane fuel is known as isobutane, containing the toxic chemical methyl mercaptan. This colorless and flammable gas emits an odor reminiscent of rotten eggs. This putrid aroma helps homeowners and professionals detect gas leaks, but it’s not what you want in a botanical extract.
Instead, commercial extraction operations typically use research and instrument-grade butane and propane that DO NOT contain methyl mercaptan.
The preferred type of butane, n-butane, also comes with a certificate of analysis (COA) to confirm that it contains no impurities. Meanwhile, some extraction technicians prefer a blend of propane and butane, usually clocking in at 70 percent butane and 30 percent propane.
Clean and fully maintained hydrocarbon extraction equipment keeps everyone safe while also ensuring maximum extraction yield and peak performance of the equipment itself.
Botanical extract consumers demand pure products, free of any flavors or aromas that might get in the way of their enjoyment. What’s more, the industry itself is experiencing massive growth. As such, proper upkeep of extraction machinery is vital to long-term health in the marketplace.
Common cleaning procedures include:
These steps will help you avoid clogged lines and valves and guard against the poor separation of compounds from plant material.
Precious compounds serve as the foundation of consumers’ favorite botanical extracts. But after extractors convert raw material into concentrates, it must be refined to remove the plant’s active ingredients from any inessential compounds.
Two basic post-processing methods are used to create a more pure final product: Winterization and Dewaxing.
This frigid-sounding approach removes undesirable compounds such as fats, lipids, waxes, and chlorophyll from the crude extract. To make it happen, you dissolve the nonpolar concentrate in a polar solvent—typically ethanol—at extremely low temperatures. Met with this chilly reception, the fats and waxes solidify at the top layer of the solution, separated from the compounds you’re looking for.
Similar to winterization in that it also removes those unwanted fats and waxes, dewaxing dissolves the crude extract in butane—also at sub-zero temperatures. Dewaxing tends to happen in a closed-loop hydrocarbon extraction system through an inline dewaxing element, ensuring the waxes and lipids stay whole for easy removal from the extraction.
*Highpoint by Worthington Industries are not extractors. As such, you should not consider the information contained in this blog advice or instruction. We strongly suggest you reach out to the proper licensing and certification authorities to ensure you operate safely and compliantly.
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