Ethanol Extraction

Ethanol extraction is among the most common methods in the hemp and cannabis extraction industry, but is it really the ideal process for producers? In this article, we will take a look at the overall costs of ethanol extraction, the differences between CO2 and ethanol extraction equipment and why producers would be wise to consider using a supercritical CO2 extraction method in their own process as opposed to the costly, risky ethanol extraction.

Ethanol Extraction CBD

pure99 chromatography machine
Go into the history of using denatured ethanol for industrial uses and why it is used for extraction despite denaturants.

What is Ethanol Extraction?

For many years, extraction has been an essential part of the marketplace in a number of industries. There are various solvents that are used to accomplish extraction including hydrocarbons, CO2 and ethanol – all of which have their own pros and cons. Among these three common methods, ethanol extraction claims to have the middle ground of efficiency that butane touts, and the safety of CO2 in terms of toxicity risks. However, whether or not these are true, it is arguable that this is one of the most costly extraction processes one could choose for their business.

Ethanol is essentially ethyl-alcohol or grain alcohol. It is commonly used in food additives such as vanilla extract, fuel in gasoline and various cleaning products. The issue with this, however, is that in order to avoid beverage excise tax, chemical denaturants are added to ethanol so it can be used in industrial means. This renders it inedible for humans, but it is still used in extraction of CBD products regularly consumed by customers. Why? Because it is the cheaper option.

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How Ethanol Extraction Works

Similarly to CO2 extraction, ethanol extraction uses ethanol as a solvent that is combined with the hemp or cannabis biomass. In doing this, the ethanol pulls desired cannabis compounds (CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids depending on the biomass used) from the plant material along with other plant compounds such as fats, waxes, terpenes and other materials. The extracted complex of materials is referred to as crude oil before winterization and distillation.

Ethanol Extraction Guidelines

Similarly to CO2 extraction, ethanol extraction uses ethanol as a solvent that is combined with the hemp or cannabis biomass. In doing this, the ethanol pulls desired cannabis compounds (CBD, THC, and other cannabinoids depending on the biomass used) from the plant material along with other plant compounds such as fats, waxes, terpenes and other materials. The extracted complex of materials is referred to as crude oil before winterization and distillation.

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Pros and Cons</3>

Pros:

Efficient: Ethanol extraction tends to have a high throughput overall.

GRAS: “Generally Regarded As Safe” according to the FDA.

Powerful: Ethanol has a very high solvation power during extraction

Eliminate Winterization: Able to avoid this step altogether as ethanol extraction accomplishes it.

Good for full spectrum: Able to extract full-spectrum distillate with very little extra effort.

Cons:

Costly: Ethanol is nearly twice the price of CO2 and is much more costly to extract with.

Risk of contamination: Chemical Denaturants are intended to prevent human consumption; yet, they still find their way into cannabinoid extracts.

Volatile: Ethanol is a very flammable substance making it more dangerous to work with.

Less Selective: High solvation power negates the ability to selectively extract various cannabis compounds.

Can’t make shatter or “sauce”: Lack of selectivity means losing the capability to create specific products.

man with extraction machines and equipment

Safety

While ethanol is a popular extraction solvent, it does have increased risks for producers and consumers alike. Because ethanol is essentially industrial strength alcohol, it is a very flammable solvent option. This means that increased safety measures in an extraction facility that meet NFPA requirements for storage. Apart from this, various permits, planning, engineers and specialized compliance like C1D1 hazard class designation.

Unless an extraction operation uses only food grade ethanol (an outlandishly expensive option with nearly 0 profitability long term) most are using some form of denatured ethanol for their extraction. This becomes problematic for the end consumer because denaturants added to alcohol are specifically used to prevent human consumption and avoid beverage taxes as a result. Even still, denatured ethanol is used to create hemp and cannabis consumables with little extended research to the potential harm constant consumption of these residual denaturants may have on the consumer.

Ethanol Solubility

Ethanol has a very high solvation power. This can be good in purposes of throughput efficiency; however, the high solubility sacrifices selectivity compared to CO2 as an extraction solvent. This means that, while desired CBD, THC, or other cannabinoids are being extracted, waxes, fats and lipids, chlorophyll and other undesirable plant compounds will be co-extracted. This means a more refined distillation process will be required in order to get a desired hemp or cannabis distillate for product formulation.

Ethanol Distillation

In order to create ethanolic hemp and cannabis extracts, solvent removal and distillation of remaining denatured ethanol is critical. The one benefit to the distillation process using ethanol as an extraction solvent is the ability to avoid the winterization process altogether. This does save an extra step that is required during CO2 extraction processes; however, no matter how efficient the distillation process, those denaturants will inevitably remain in the extracted distillate to some degree. 

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Why Ethanol Extraction is More Costly for Business

Though ethanol is a common extraction method in the hemp and cannabis industry, it is undoubtedly a costlier method for an extraction company to utilize. Even the direct cost of each solvent is drastically different. For example, a pound of food grade ethanol when purchased in bulk is $4.71/lb at current price whereas a pound of food grade CO2 when purchased in bulk is about $0.04/lb at current price. Apart from this immediate cost, the overall process is shockingly more expensive as well.

Ethanol extraction is an extraction process that is typically run at low temperatures. The ethanol is cooled to below -20 degrees celsius before it’s introduced to hemp biomass. Cooling the ethanol reduces the amount of extracted chlorophyll and waxes. Accounting for the energy required to cool down the ethanol to such low temperatures and then evaporate after use, the overall energy cost for ethanol extraction is nearly 3 to 6 times the price of using a CO2 extraction process. Though this is a major factor in overall operating expenses, it is not the primary overhead cost of concern for a manufacturer who has chosen ethanol as their extraction method.

This extraction method requires an exorbitant amount of ethanol to be used for each pound of hemp. In reality, approximately 1 to 1.5 gallons of ethanol has to be used per pound of dry hemp biomass to extract the desired cannabinoids. Hemp is considered to be a very absorbent biomass material. Because of this, the ethanol used must saturate the plant material in order for an effective extraction to take place. For this reason a large volume of ethanol is needed to extract cbd out of hemp. With ethanol being $4.71/lb at current price, this creates a tremendous cost to extract with ethanol.

Perhaps the key cost driver for ethanol extraction lies in solvent recovery. Though many ethanol extraction equipment businesses supply centrifuges or presses to get rid of the leftover ethanol in the biomass, even the best equipment will provide only a 90 to 95% recovery of their ethanol.

This creates a 5% to 10% loss in ethanol which is a massive cost driver for ethanol extraction.
By way of example, suppose you wanted to process 1000 lb of hemp. If ethanol is your choice solvent for extraction, you will need 1000 gallons of ethanol to extract your desired cannabinoids. At a cost of roughly $16-$33/gallon of food grade ethanol, the upfront cost will range from $16,000 to $33,000. Even if you recovered 90% of the ethanol, the total loss will be $1,600 – $3,300 for each 1000 lbs. Extracted. If you are a manufacturer extracting 1000lbs every day, this would be a daily operational cost for your business. In comparison, the same extraction method for the equivalent 1000lbs of hemp using CO2 as a solvent would only result in roughly $70 per day – thousands of dollars difference compared to ethanol solvent loss.

Aside from these drastic cost differences due to energy and solvent loss, there are numerous hidden costs when using an ethanolic extraction method including insurance, facilities, testing and solvent reuse costs. It is, by far, more financially viable to decrease or eliminate these costs by using a CO2 extraction method instead.

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CO2 vs. Ethanol Extraction Equipment Energy Costs

The primary difference between CO2 and ethanol extraction equipment is the cost of the extraction operations. CO2 equipment has a much lower cost to produce a kilogram of extract compared to ethanol. A lot of this has to do with overall energy costs of the extraction equipment used.

Processing a ton of hemp per day into extracts can be an energy-intensive process depending on how the hemp is extracted. The following table compares the energy expense for ethanol extraction equipment versus the energy expense for CO2 extraction equipment:

Energy Cost for Ethanol Extraction Equipment for 1 ton/day at 1 gal/lb of Hemp

18711 Litres to Cool from 25℃ to -20℃
16840 Litres to Heat and Evaporate after Ethanol Loss
454 kw/hr to Cool from 25℃ to -20℃
481 kw/hr to Heat to Boiling Point
3105 kw/hr to Evaporate
4040 kw/hr Total @ 100% Efficiency
75% Efficiency
5387 kw/hr Total
$0.09 Cost Per kw/hr
$506.36 Cost Per Day

Energy Cost for CO2 Extraction at 1 Ton/Day Including Winterization

636 Litres to Cool from 25℃ to -20℃
636 Litres to Heat and Evaporate after Ethanol Loss
15 kw/hr to Cool from 25℃ to -20℃
18 kw/hr to Heat to Boiling Point
117 kw/hr to Evaporate
151 kw/hr total @ 100% Efficiency
75% Efficiency
201 kw/hr Total
$0.09 per kw/hr
$18.92 Cost Per Day for Winterization
43.20 kw/hr Per Day for CO2 Extractors
$3.88 Cost Per Day for CO2 Extractors

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can ethanol become contaminated during ethanol extraction?

Yes, ethanol can become contaminated during ethanol extraction. It is important that you address the contamination with testing and reuse protocols. guidance for solvent reviews have been published by the FDA in 2010. Please refer to the many articles in this blog for more information on cross-contamination with extraction.

What is the electrical cost of ethanol extraction vs. Co2 extraction?

Processing a ton of hemp per day into extracts  can be an energy-intensive process depending on how the hemp is extracted. The following table compares the energy expense for ethanol extraction versus the energy expense for CO2 extraction:

Energy cost for Ethanol Extraction for 1 ton per day at 1 gallon ethanol per 1 lb of hemp
18711 litres to cool from 25 to -20
16840 litres to heat and evaporate after ethanol loss
454 kwhr to Cool from 25 to -20
481 kwhr to heat to boiling point
3105 kwhr to evaporate
4040 kwhr total @ 100% Efficiency
75% Efficiency
5387 kwhr Total
$           0.09 per kwhr
$          506.36 per day

 

Energy cost for CO2 Extraction at 1 ton per day including winterization
636 litres to cool from 25 to -20
636 litres to heat and evaporate after ethanol loss
15 kwhr to Cool from 25 to -20
18 kwhr to heat to boiling point
117 kwhr to evaporate
151 kwhr total @ 100% Efficiency
75% Efficiency
201 kwhr Total
$           0.09 per kwhr
$        18.92 per day for winterization
43.20 Kwhr per day for Co2 extractors
$         3.88 Per day for Co2 extractors
Would you recommend ethanol extracted oils for Vape products?

Due to the risk of chemical contaminants that are found in 25 to 30% of  ethanol extracted oils, we recommend that CO2 oils be used for Vapor Products.

Is it possible to make a solventless extract with CO2?

It is absolutely possible to make a solventless extract with CO2. Solventless extracts are typically made with subcritical CO2 extraction methods.

Does ethanol extraction have a greater throughput than CO2 extraction?

Hemp processing equipment can be scaled for 1 to 5 tons of extracted hemp per day. It’s generally not a fair comparison to compare the throughput on an instrument from two different companies. What is fair is to specify the throughput At the tonnage process per day and then look at the operating cost for that process. You can also look at the equipment and Facilities cost to accommodate that level of Production. after you have all of your costs accounted for including the hidden costs, then you can calculate the net present value for each investment.

What are the most common denaturants in ethanol?

Denatured ethanol is a mixture of denaturants and pure ethanol. Chemical companies add the denaturant to Pure ethanol so that they will not be consumed as a food.
Denatured recipes are published by the ttb that is administered by the National Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. There are many different recipes. one of the most common denaturants used in ethanol extraction is heptane. However there are other substances that may be used including acetone, isopropyl alcohol, methanol and other longer chain alcohols.
Is very limited data on the safety of heptane over the long term exposure. In fact the limit that the FDA has placed on the amount of heptane in a tincture for example was established in the 1990s on the basis of a single study published in 1981. That study the effect of heptane on Sprague dawley rats. That is why there are many disclaimers and the general guidance from the FDA is to limit the amount of solvent in any drug that is consumed.

Doesn’t ethanol extraction equipment remove all the ethanol from the biomass after extraction?

No. Approximately 5 to 10% of the ethanol is left in the biomass and is counted as a solvent loss. These solvent losses add up to operating costs. This is especially true if organic ethanol is used or food grade ethanol is utilized as the extraction solvent.

If you had an ethanol extraction facility, would you ever use CO2 just for stripping terpenes?

Ethanol extraction typically destroys the terpenes when the ethanol is removed from the extract or is distilled from the winterized oil. Many ethanol extractors are seeking a way to preserve the terpene profile of the plant in the output oil. To this end people have tried techniques such as Steam distillation, CO2 stripping, and vacuum distillation.
Certainly, CO2 can be used to strip terpenes from Hemp biomass Prior to ethanol extraction. However, vacuum distillation is by far the most gentle and effective way to harvest the terpene profile prior to ethanol extraction.

How do I model and compare the financial return of ethanol extraction vs Co2 extraction?

There are many inputs that need to be defined when creating a financial model comparing two different extraction methods. The first decision to be made is to decide what the financial metric will be used to make a decision on the superiority of one method over the other. 

In this case, we recommend the use of the Net Present Value as the way to model the return of each extraction technique because it accounts for the cash flow associated with the operation. Many ethanol extraction companies try to make the argument that ethanol extraction is lower cost because the equipment cost is less. However, the equipment cost will have very little impact on the overall profitability of the operation at the same throughput.

The best way to compare the two techniques is to fix the throughput so that an apples-to-apples comparison can be made. Comparisons such are payback time and return on investment can mislead someone into making a bad investment decision. 

So if we fix the throughput at one ton per day the cost of the hemp is equal between the techniques and operating cost variance is the only contributing factor.     

Here are the twelve key questions that need to be defined in order to do a comparison:

  1. What is the direct labor to process?
  2. What is the energy to process?
  3. What are the solvent losses? 
  4. What are the direct material startup costs including solvent startup costs?
  5. What are the cannabinoid recovery rates?
  6. How much solvent do I use, reuse, and when do I need to replace the solvent with fresh solvent?  and at what interval?
  7. What is the insurance cost for each option?
  8. What is the cost of hazardous waste disposal?
  9. What is the cost of solvent removal?
  10.  What is the cost of reuse of the solvent?
  11.  WHat is the cost of HAP emissions?
  12. What is the depreciation for each option including building costs for H2 vs F2 occupancy?

Once these questions are answered you will be able to build a pro forma income statement. 

Revenue

  • Standard labor
  • Standard materials
  • Overhead

Gross margin

  • SGA
  • R&D

Net Margin

You can then hold SG&A and R&D constant for both techniques and account for the difference in depreciation to get to a net margin number.  

A cash flow statement can then be generated from net margin. One thing to note is that depreciation must be added back to net margin as it is a non-cash expense on the income statement.  

Cash flows are then added up for 5 consecutive periods (years) including the initial outlay of cash for startup working capital.  Those cash flows are then discounted at a discount rate (Weighted average cost of capital estimate at 13-17%).  

If you do this analysis, you will find that CO2 extraction will absolutely crush ethanol extraction in terms of net present value.  

Does it cost less to process hemp with Co2 compared with Ethanol?

Yes.
In fact the operating cost for CO2 extraction is dramatically less than the operating costs associated with ethanol.

Extraction with Ethanol is a process that is typically run at low temperatures. First the ethanol is cooled to below -20oC before it is introduced to the hemp. Cooling the ethanol reduces the amount of extracted chlorophyll and waxes. If you account for the energy required to chill the ethanol down to those low temperatures and then also evaporate after use, the energy bill for extracting ethanol is approximately 3-6x the cost of extracting with CO2. However, the energy cost is really not the key driver in the overall operating costs.
Ethanol extraction requires a significant amount of ethanol to be used per pound of hemp. In fact, about 1 to 1.5 gallons of ethanol must be used per pound of dry hemp in order to extract. Hemp is a very absorbent biomass material and the ethanol must fully saturate the hemp plant before any extraction can take place. For this reason a large volume of ethanol is needed to extract cbd from hemp.
The key cost driver or ethanol extraction is recovery of that solvent from the biomass. Even though many ethanol extraction equipment companies provide centrifuges and or presses to eliminate the amount of ethanol left over in the biomass, The best equipment will provide only a 90 to 95% recovery of the ethanol. This 5 to 10% loss in ethanol is a huge cost driver for extracting ethanol.
For example, suppose you wanted to process 1000 lb of hemp. You would need 1000 gallons of ethanol to start out at a cost of $16-33 per gallon for food grade ethanol for a total cost of $16,000 to $33,000. If you recovered 90% of the ethanol the ethanol loss would be $1,600 – $3,300 per 1000 lbs. Furthermore if you process 1000 pounds per day, this would be your daily loss.
In contrast, you will lose the equivalent of about $70 per day for CO2 extractions for the exact same process.
Besides energy and solvent usage, there are many other hidden costs related to extraction with ethanol including solvent reuse costs, insurance cost, increased facilities cost, and testing costs.

Is CO2 cheaper than ethanol?

Yes.
A pound of food grade ethanol when purchased in bulk is $4.71/lb at current price.
A pound of food grade CO2 when purchased in bulk is about $0.04/lb at current price.

What’s the purity of the CO2 used in CO2 extraction?

There are many grades of CO2 including industrial and food grade and medical grade. We typically use food grade but medical grade is also highly desirable. the specifications for each of these grades are published by the Compressed Gas Association or by your gas supplier.

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