Terpene Extraction: How to Minimize the Loss

More than ever, people are far more curious and informed about the ingredients in substances they ingest or place on their bodies.  And when it comes to cannabis, this has put a lot of attention on the relatively new scientific method of terpene extraction.

Terpenes, the volatile compounds present in an array of plants, are the substances responsible for the way those plants smell and taste.  For example, pinene, found in conifer trees, releases the refreshing scent that evergreens are famous for.  And the sharp, citrus scent and bitter flavor released by lemon and orange peels is a gift from the terpene limonene.  The terpene linalool is responsible for the lavender flower’s widely commoditized perfume.  In addition to others, these terpenes are present in cannabis and give marijuana strains their unique flavor and scent.

In addition to their aesthetic appeal and like the other compounds that make cannabis such a fascinating plant, terpenes have a host of therapeutic properties.  For example, pinene is known to assuage symptoms of asthma, pain, inflammation, oxidation damage, and bacterial infection.  Limonene is known for its anti-fungal, anti-depressant, anxiolytic, and immune stimulating properties.  Linalool doesn’t simply smell nice;  it is an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant, and immune-modulating terpene.

The Health Benefits of Terpenes

Perhaps one of the greatest reasons for the surge of interest in terpenes has been their potential ability to treat cancer.  Pinene, limonene, and linalool all have anti-tumor properties, meaning they have the potential to stop the proliferation of cancer cells.  This is an exciting discovery because it means that cancer patients may be able to use terpenes to avoid or supplement chemotherapy, a much more toxic and dangerous cancer terpene extractiontreatment.

So on their own, terpenes are pretty awesome.  But the interactions between terpenes, the cannabinoids present in cannabis, and our endocannabinoid systems can actually amplify the medicinal qualities of cannabis.  In a 2011 study, Dr. Ethan Russo found that the relationship between those compounds “could produce synergy with respect to treatment of pain, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addiction, epilepsy, cancer, and fungal and bacterial infections.”  For example, the combination of linalool, limonene, pinene, and the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD) may prove to be an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.  Linalool decreases stress, limonene enhances mood, pinene improves alertness, and CBD basically improves…everything.  Together, those compounds are a medical force to be reckoned with.

How Terpenes Affect Your High

Terpenes can also have a direct influence on the potency of the high you experience after consuming cannabis.  Consuming, for example, limonene after cannabis could reduce the most well-known negative symptom of THC—anxiety.  But if you want to enhance the potency of your high, consuming a mango—a fruit rich with the terpene myrcene—might just do that.

Myrcene allows THC to pass through the blood-brain barrier with more ease resulting in a longer and more powerful high

Some cannabis growers and manufacturers are harnessing the benefits of terpenes by growing breeds with high concentrations of specific terpenes or extracting them and reintroducing them into concentrates or topicals.  The reasons for this vary.  Some growers simply want to enhance the flavor of their strains while other producers may specifically want the terpenes to amplify the therapeutic effect of the medicine.

Terpene Extraction

Before we talk about the extraction of terpenes, we have to talk about cannabis concentrates.  Cannabis extracts or concentrates are products with a significantly greater potency than the strains they come from because they are created through methods or with solvents that strip the plant of basically everything but its cannabinoids.  Extracts such as kief and dry sieve don’t require solvents, but some of the more popular and potent extracts such as butane hash oil (BHO) is made with the solvent butane while other extracts can be made with CO2 or ethanol.

Many cannabis manufacturers use vacuum-drying ovens to remove or purge the residual solvents from the concentrates.  These ovens, used in electronics, medical devices, the aerospace industry, and cannabis extraction reduce pressure, allowing water and solvents to turn into gas and escape at lower temperatures, leaving behind a highly potent and purified cannabis product.

The Future of Terpene Extraction

Terpene isolation or extraction is a relatively new and accidentally stumbled upon discovery.

CEO of the company Trichome Technologies, Ken “K” Morrow , a cannabis consultant active in the cultivation industry for decades, realized that he could isolate terpenes through the use of a vacuum-drying oven when making extractions from large amounts of cannabis.  Morrow found that moisture was interfering with the pump oil, and after working with manufacturers to improve the vacuum-drying oven, he realized that much more than solvent and water was being captured during the extraction process. Morrow winterized the solution of water, solvent, and terpenes.  He used a separating funnel or a graduated cylinder to separate the alcohol and water and was left with purified terpenes as the final product.

The more purged a concentrate is of solvents and water, the harder it becomes.  Terpenes, however, are alcohol and oil based and when left terpene extractionbehind, give the concentrate a more fluid consistency.  In addition to removing solvents and water, vacuum ovens were also capturing terpenes, a phenomenon that explained why over-purged concentrates had such diminished flavor.

Across International, the vacuum-drying oven manufacturer, solicited Morrow’s help in mass-producing a similar product, and Morrow agreed to assist as long as the company created their isolation method with terpene extraction in mind.  Across International’s Whole Terpenoid Isolator makes it possible to extract whole-composition terpenoids from cannabis, something that had not been previously possible.  Terpenes that had been available were derived from plants like citrus fruits and conifers, but because of the terpene’s inherent volatility, the oils left behind by terpene extraction contained a fragment of the potency that whole composition terpene offers.

The heat from decarboxylating cannabis before extracting concentrates destroys terpenes, so terpenes must be isolated first.  Once they are extracted, they should be placed in airtight containers away from light or heat to prevent degradation.  Then, the cannabis can be safely decarboxylated without concern for terpene damage, and once the extract has been formed, the isolated terpenes can be reintroduced to the final product.

Dianna Benjamin

About the author: Dianna Benjamin is a freelance writer, teacher, wife, and mom horrified and fascinated by social justice and our inability--yet constant pursuit--to get it right.