In this episode, Tony Frischknecht brings in Nick Gay, the Head of Product Management at Essential Extractions, to discuss the basics of herb extraction. Extraction refers to the process of getting essential oils from herbs. This process works by dissolving the plant’s essential oils in a solvent, then later separating the essential oils from the solvent through temperature and pressure changes, so it yields pure essential oils in the end. Nick explains the two most common forms of herb extraction: steam distillation and CO2 extraction. Between the two, steam distillation is the most common form of extraction used today. Although it’s the easier process, steam distillation can’t be used for heat-sensitive plants like citrus fruits, in which case CO2 extraction is the preferred method. Tune in to learn more about extraction basics!
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Herb Extraction Basics With Nick Gay
We’re going to be talking about the basics of extracting essential oils. I’m excited to have my guest on here with me, Nick Gay. He’s the Head of Product Management for Essential Extractions. Nick, how are you doing?
I’m great. How are you, Tony?
I’m doing fantastic. I’m glad you had time to join us. Simplicity, let’s make this. I want to make this so people can walk through if they choose that they want to do some kind of extraction. They have the basics to start off with and some common knowledge depending on who they’re talking to online, or who they’re connecting within the outside world to learn how to extract their essential oils. What I want to start with you on is steam distillation. It seems like it’s an old process. Do you know how far back it goes or how common it is used now?
It’s the most common form of extraction use now. I don’t know the exact date, but it’s very ancient technology. It’s been used for years and years.
What kind of different botanicals can be extracted through steam distillation?
Most essential oils that you’ll buy at the store are extracted through steam distillation. The only things that are not are heat sensitive, such as citrus fruits or certain flowers.
Is this a small-scale operation, large scale? Can you walk me through that how you’ve seen it or how it can be done? Can it be done on both scales?
It can be done anywhere from right here in my kitchen, on a very small scale, anywhere up to where you’re loading in the botanicals with the crane. It’s a very wide range there.
I can imagine this crane going in and dropping. That’s a huge commercial scale that is far out there over my mind to comprehend right now. I bet you that’s a pretty impressive operation when you see that. What kind of yields do we see in the steam distillation? I’m sure it varies on the botanical you’re using, but what type of percentages do you generally see?
In steam distillation, you’ll yield a little bit higher than most other forms of extraction for essential oil. For example, for lavender, depending on the variant, you’ll get anywhere from 2% to 3% to put things in perspective.
Can you walk me and the audience through a simple steam distillation setup? Explain that as best as you can so that we can get a good picture of it.
It’s either going to be in the form of a glassware apparatus set up or a kettle that you set on your stove. The easiest is the kettle that you set on your stove, which you’ll fill the bottom of it with water. There’s a little basket that you set the botanicals in and then the lid. There’s the condenser that you hook up to chilled water. You turn it on. It boils and then the steam rises through the botanicals. It takes the aromatics with it. It’s condensed in the condenser back into a liquid, where it’s then separated in a separatory funnel into oil and water.Essential oils are super potent. A little goes a long way. Click To Tweet
As that steam comes up, is it in a closed containment area where this is going through the entire process? When you say basket, I think of a wicker basket. Is it a metal basket usually or how is it set in there?
It’s a stainless-steel basket. The entire thing is enclosed under slight positive pressure, nothing crazy, a couple PSI maybe. The basket sits in there like a tea steeper almost. The steam rises and then the pressure helps it move over to the condenser. That’s where you collect your essential oils.
At the end where you collect it, how pure is that essential oil there through the steam distillation? Is it extremely high level? I don’t know how accurate steam is at this point.
It produces a good product for sure, but there are other forms of extraction that can produce much more potent essential oils.
What expense can I expect if I want to do some steam distillation extraction? Can you walk me through what kind of expense I would be looking at to try to create a steam distillation?
On the lowest end, it would be about $300. You could only run about a little under an ounce at a time with that setup. You’re not getting too much from that. It could go all the way up to thousands even for home use.
Depending on what dry botanical you’re using, it could be expensive purchasing the biomass, correct?
You need a lot. For example, if you have 100 grams of lavender, you’re only getting about 2 to 3 grams of essential oil back from that. Even if you have a couple of lavender plants at your house, that’s only going to yield a couple of grams of essential oil.
What can you do with a couple of grams? Can you give us some ideas on what you can use that for that?
You could make like a lotion or something like that. When I make lotions at home, I’ll use about 1 gram per 4 ounces container.
It does go a long way then.
Essential oils are super potent. You could see why they’re so expensive as well because you get so little from so much. With that said, a little bit goes a long way for sure.Extraction is not that complicated when you look at the whole picture. Click To Tweet
Anybody out there that’s ever gone down the spice and herb aisle, that tells you how expensive the things can get. When you’re looking at a little jar of herbs and it’s like $7, you’re like, “That’s a couple of ounces, maybe 4 ounces.” If you try to get a large amount of flower, it can get expensive depending on what type of herb you’re using. To recap on the steam distillation, water is boiled and creates steam. Steam passes through the botanicals, brings aromatics with it. Steam is cooled and then condensed into a liquid, oil and the water are separated. That’s where you get your essential oils. Let’s go onto the next one. This process creates more purity, as Nick was talking about before. I want to talk about CO2 extraction. Do you know what this is used a lot in our world of what we’re extracting?
CO2 extraction is gaining a lot of headway in the herb and hemp industry, but it’s also been used for not super long but a while to decaffeinate coffee. Also, make certain essential oils like citrus essential oils and rosehip essential oil.
Since we’re not using heat and we’re using CO2, what does that change as you’re creating potency at the end of the product? Before you answer that, what are the big positives of using CO2 for botanicals?
The biggest advantage is that you’re not using heat. A lot of things that are heat sensitive like rosehip oil or citrus oils can produce with CO2 extraction a lot better than steam distillation, where those aromatics would be destroyed through the process.
Is your purity better? Is the potency better? What do you mean by a lot better?
The purity is a lot higher. I was reading an article that said CO2 essential oil has twelve times more different compounds in it than steam-distilled essential oil.
It creates more potency. Is CO2 a harsh chemical?
No. I’m exhaling it right now. It’s in our bodies. The cool thing about it is even after you extract it, even if you add liquid CO2 sitting right now, it would be gone within a minute or so. It wants to be a gas. When we’re doing this extraction process, we’re making it do something it doesn’t want to do, be a liquid. Once it gets back to the atmosphere, it wants to get right back out and be a gas.
It seems like what you’re talking about is you’re manipulating temperatures to create this perfect situation.
You’re manipulating temperatures and pressures in order to get CO2 into a liquid form.
Walk us through how CO2 would be extracted on a small scale at this point.
You use a small-scale unit. I’m going to walk you through the process of extracting using CO2. You can use a machine like the one we offer at Essential Extractions. What you do is you’d load your botanicals in the process chamber. You would add CO2 into the system, which would then go through the chiller, which condenses it into a liquid. That liquid is then forced through the botanicals and then taken over to the collection vessel, where the CO2 is then boiled off and re-circulated through the system.
What do you have to do to the botanicals prior to putting it in the collection vessel as you were talking about?
The only thing that needs to be done is if it’s something that’s very dense, it needs to be ground. Always dry your product before putting it in there because you’ll get water in the system. It’s a whole mess.
I’ve been around extraction for a while, but I didn’t even think about that. You’ve probably learned that after the first time. You go in and you’re like, “I like this extraction thing.” I’m thinking of a person never extracted before, “Please dry your herbs first.” What issues will that cause in your machine if you don’t dry it prior?
The product that you’re going to get isn’t quite as good because you’re going to be bringing chlorophyll and green, dark nasty stuff with it. On a safety level, having water in your system is a health hazard because mold and mildew can be produced. That’s the major thing there.
That’s a very good point because you don’t want this passing into the future extractions that you do. If you’ve got that mold in there, you’re going to pick that up each time you go around. Let’s go to the CO2 extraction machine. Nick, let’s take a look at the Little Buddy Extractor so we can explain to people what a small-scale CO2 looks like.
The two systems have the exact same capacity. One is from a local science company here in Denver, Colorado.
Nick, describe what we’re looking at here.
The two systems have the exact same biomass capacity. The one on the left is a steam distillation apparatus available from the Science Company, which is a local place here in Denver. The one on the right is our tabletop CO2 extractor offered by Essential Extractions. I’ll walk you through the whole process of each of these. On the left here, that’s where your boiling water is going to go.
For the readers, he’s walking through a tutorial of this picture and he’s drawing on it. We know how the process and how the flow of the steam goes through.
Where your boiling water is here, that’s producing steam. Your steam travels up here where your biomass is here. All your botanicals and herbs are right here. Your steam then travels through there, up through this arm. This is the condenser here. There’s cold water flowing through here and then out here. It chills that back into a liquid, which goes down into a little collection thing here, which goes into a separatory funnel to separate out the oil and the water. On the right here is the CO2 extraction machine. Here would be your CO2 tank. That’s your CO2 tank here.
Is there a line that runs into connecting that? How is it connected to the machine itself?
It’s the same type of tank that you’d use for a keg or something like that. It’s a similar connection. What you’ll do is open the valve of the CO2 tank, which then allows the CO2 to flow through that line. You open the valve here, which behind right here, not shown there’s a chiller. The CO2 goes into this chiller. It gets condensed into a liquid.
In the tank, it’s gas and we’re converting it to a liquid at this point.
Correct, that liquid CO2 then travels down this way, and then you open this valve here and that allows liquid CO2 to travel into this process column here, which is where your botanicals are.
What’s happening in the site valve here? It’s running after the chiller and then it’s running down into this site valve where you can see it drip in. What’s it doing right there?
You could see the CO2 collecting when that valve is closed. You’ll see how much liquid CO2 you have, and then you will open this valve, which will allow the liquid CO2 to flow into your process vessel where your botanicals are.
Why do you need to open and close that valve right there? What’s the purpose of that?
You’re allowing the CO2 to condense into a liquid in the chiller. It takes time to do that. You have to throttle it a little bit in order to get enough CO2 into the system.
When you open it up, is that site valve full or is it halfway full? How do you when to open it up?
You let that fill up to the top, and then you’ll dump it through. You’ll see the liquid CO2 dropping through that site glass.
Once it drops through that site glass, we’re going into where the biomass is kept from whatever herb or botanical we have in there.
That’s right there where I drew that arrow.
Does that CO2 drip through the collect vessel there? How does that work?
It’s pushed through with the pressure. The system is pressurized. The liquid is pushed through the botanical material.
From there, what’s next?
From there, the liquid CO2 and your aromatics and whatnot travel over here to this collection vessel, which then a small amount of heat is applied, which makes the liquid CO2 boil and turn back into a gas. Your botanicals, your aromatics and stuff are a lot heavier than the CO2. They sit down here at the bottom in the collector itself. That CO2 is boiled off. It goes back into the chiller, where it’s then re-circulated through the system.
It’s a closed-loop system. It keeps running through there. Let me ask you a question. In that site or where that site is, do you have to keep closing and opening that valve as it fills up or no?
Once you have enough CO2 in the system, then you’re running for your optimum amount of time that you’re trying to go for. For example, for lavender, I’ll do about a four-hour extraction time. Once you get enough CO2 in the system, you leave it. It’ll take me about 5, 10 minutes to get the system started, and then I’ll let it be for four hours. You go in and you can harvest your material out of this spout right here.
That spout opens up, and I assume you want to have the system off when you open that valve.
What you’ll do is you’ll close that valve.
You guys that are reading, I know this is challenging to follow. That’s why we’re going to post this so you can grab it, but I urge you to go check it out on the YouTube channel if you’re interested to see the whole flow part of this. For people who are like, “That sounds way too complicated,” there is step-by-step instructions as you use our system that will show you how to do this. I want to let you guys know that it’s not that complicated when you look at the picture here. Nick, go ahead.
You’ll open that valve there and then the pressure will allow the essential oils and whatnot to come out of this little spout here, and you’re rocking.
You’re running it for four hours. I know your yields are going to vary on this as well, depending on what botanical you have. To go back to what we were talking about earlier, purities and yield from this, what is the quality of the product once we get to this stage where the collectors at?
It’s a much more potent product that’s produced with CO2 extraction. What I mean by that is CO2-extracted essential oils have a mixture of essential oils and absolutes. It’s the best of all worlds.
What’s an absolute?
Absolutes are extracted using harsh solvents like hexane, heptane and ethanol. It’s another old form of extraction that’s not used too much now because of the harsh chemicals used in the process, but it does produce a very potent product. A lot of perfume companies will use that because you need very little. Unlike essential oil, it’s solid. It’s almost a gummy, sticky material as opposed to a liquid.
We’ve got a lot of information here. I’m liking what I’m seeing. Let’s talk about CO2 extraction versus steam distillation. What are the positives and negatives?
A lot of the positives of steam distillation is it’s relatively simple. You don’t need too much training. The startup cost is a little bit lower. Some of the downsides to it are that when you’re doing this process, it smells awful. If you overcook the broccoli, that’s what it smells like. It’s that obnoxious smell, whereas with the CO2 extraction machine, it’s all in a closed loop. There’s no odor. The other problem about steam distillation is it takes a lot of power. On a small scale, you’re pulling in a little bit of water, but you can imagine on a large scale where you have a giant vessel that you need to boil all this water. It takes a lot of power to produce all that heat.
CO2 isn’t a harsh solvent. It’s not going to leave anything in the botanical itself or in the oil itself. There won’t be any by-product of CO2 that’s left there that’s dangerous.
No, not at all.
What if somebody was to tell you, “I don’t mind the smell. I’m going to do it this way because it’s cheaper, this is the old way, or I like doing it this way.” What would you tell them?
I would tell them that you can’t make everything with steam distillation. If you wanted rose essential oil or citrus oils, even if you’re extracting lavender if you did one that was steamed distilled and compared that to a CO2 extracted lavender, and you smell them side by side, the difference will be night and day. With that said, sometimes depending on what you’re doing, you might like the steam distilled essential oil better because it’s earthier or more floral, whereas the CO2 essential oil might be sweeter. It’s all about what you are trying to get out of it. If you’re trying to get medicinal benefits, then CO2 extraction is the way to go. You’re not killing off a lot of things during that heat process. You’re able to retain a lot of different compounds that you would lose out on from the heat.
You walked us through a lot of how the Little Buddy system works and also the steam distillation. What knowledge is required to run the Little Buddy Extractor?
Not too much. You could read through the instructions. It’s about like a ten-page little booklet that tells you everything you need to know. After a few times running it, you’ll be comfortable. It’s pretty easy to use. Once you get that thing started, it runs itself. Me talking about it, drawing all the arrows, X’s and O’s and such, it makes it look all confusing, but when you’re running the machine, it’s very simple.
There are machines out there. There is not a lot that is running small extraction like the one that we’re showing here. Our goal to get out of this is, so you guys understand the simple basics of extraction. We talk about CO2 because it is our machine and we believe in it. However, there are other ways to do this. If you guys find something that you like and you want to go after it, you’re more than free to. We have an option here that stands out compared to a lot of other companies. A lot of it is because we’ve put a lot of thought into. We’ve also had a lot of experience in this extraction world. We’ve tried to solve a lot of these issues that we’ve experienced in the last several years. When it comes down to choosing what type of extraction you’re going to use, there are a lot of different ways out there now. Nick, what other types of extraction are there that we didn’t even cover here?
Ethanol, hydrocarbon, and hydrocarbon would cover butane and propane. There’s also a solvent-less extraction which uses cold water, pressure and heat. There are a lot of different ways of extraction. It’s not commonly used, but there are even people who extract products using nitrous oxide. There are all sorts of different types of extraction out there.
There’s a lot of misconception on how safe CO2 extraction is out there. Why is that?
CO2 is a solvent, but so is water. Sometimes people will see something like that and be like, “It’s made with chemicals, etc.” I’m breathing CO2 out right now. For most of my extraction experience in the herb industry, I’ve worked with butane and propane, which produce a good extract. It produces a strong quality extract, but it’s also hard to get all of that residual butane or propane out of the product. With CO2, there’s nothing left in it other than what you’re trying to get out of it, the essential oil or the botanical oil that you’re trying to extract.
It seems like if there were anything left in it, it would just evaporate. Am I correct in saying that?
Yeah, exactly. I don’t know if you’ve ever played with dry ice, but if you let dry ice sit out overnight, it’s gone. CO2 doesn’t want to be solid. It doesn’t want to be liquid, and that’s why it goes back to its gaseous state. That’s why it’s so easy to get out of the product and you don’t need any post-processing steps.
To reiterate what we went over, CO2 extraction can be used for heat-sensitive materials, creates a more potent product, shorter run-time than steam distillation, no harsh solvents or chemicals used, even though it is a solvent. It’s a higher initial cost. However, you’re getting those positives of the potency and yields from that. It requires a little bit of knowledge, but not a lot. With steam distillation, there are no solvents or chemicals used besides steam, in which water is a solvent. It’s lower initial costs. It doesn’t take a lot of training to run one of those either. However, the smell is pretty bad, especially if you’re running it, let’s say you were making this in your house. It would sneak up in your entire house. It can be used for heat-sensitive materials, long extraction times. What kind of times was it?
It’s about eight hours or longer. Quite a while to have some funk boiling in your kitchen.
If anybody’s ever cooked something or burned something and it stays in your house for a day or two, it’s brutal. I can imagine it starts stinking when you get those botanicals in the room. This is all great information. We’ve covered a lot here. I always try to extend the invitation for people to reach out. Nick, if people are looking to have some questions about extraction, how can they reach out to you? What’s the best way to reach out to you?
You can get me on my email. It’s Nick@EssentialExtractionCorp.com. You can send me an email and we’ll chit chat. Tell me what you got and we’ll figure it out.
I appreciate you taking the time out of your day to share this stuff with us. It seems very complicated when you first started looking at extraction. I know when you go into an extraction lab, you’re like, “What is all this stuff?” Thanks for creating some clarity on the basics and how to start. I want to thank you, guys, so much for joining us. I know you could be tuning in to many other shows, but we are trying to bring you firsthand knowledge on how guys like Nick have been doing extracting for a long time and the new stuff we’re coming out with. If you have any questions about what we discussed or the Little Buddy, please check us out at ExtractionEssentials.com. You can reach any one of us there. We’ll get your email. We’ll make sure to get back to you with any questions you have.
On the site too will be stuff about the Little Buddy if you’re interested in looking more into that and understanding how that works like pricing. We also have leasing options too. We know that there are people out there that don’t have a big budget. There are a lot of options if you’re looking at this. What we plan to bring you here in the future, I can’t wait for you to see, but we’re going to be bringing you some business ideas to help you create. If you’re looking to create your own formulations, to create a product, that’s what we’re going to show you how to do there. I know Nick is going to be on with me. He’s going to show you a lot of this too. If you guys like what you’re reading, please subscribe. We want to be in the top 100 podcasts. We could use your help to do that and that is going to create more great content. We’ll see you guys on the next episode. Thank you so much for reading.
About Nick Gay
A leader in the CBD and herb industry with 8 years experience in new facility set-up, employee training, SOP creation and integration, product production, extraction and distillation.
A collaborative team-player who strives for operational excellence and works across all departments to scale production and create safe work environments.