Almost every week, I have a conversation with someone who wants to get into the cannabis industry. They’ve done some research and decided to use CO2 extraction to get oil from cannabis. The conversation usually follows these lines:
“Hi, I want to buy the biggest system you have. I’ve got a 300-acre farm and I’m going to fill it with marijuana.”
Me: “Where are you in the process?”
Them: “Nowhere yet, but I’m planning to be up and running in one year.”
It’s all well and good to have big dreams and there’s no reason why those dreams can’t become reality. At the same time; be patient, exercise restraint, and scale up. If I didn’t care about the customer, I’d happily sell them our largest extraction system. But I want my customers to succeed and for that reason, I advise caution.
There are 3-4 steps to go through before running a full-scale industrial processing facility. It’s especially important for people who have no experience. Rushing into full production will cause delays because of a lack of experience, a lack of understanding of the process and a lack of understanding of the system.
For the first phase (the pilot phase), begin with a small system, and teach yourself how to extract oil. Spend a small amount of money, buy a small 1-2 liter system and begin experimenting. During this phase, you’re researching techniques and teaching yourself the parameters of extraction. You have to understand the process so ask about training offered. Keep copious notes of everything you do, weighing and measuring everything.
In this phase, the environment is usually a laboratory setting, with a system on a benchtop, and follows a fairly manual process. You will process short runs, testing on a variety of source materials and operating conditions, then record your results. This stage is smaller and less complex, which means it’s more manageable and nimble. You will be able to make changes on the fly, and to tweak the process until you’re satisfied with the result. Once the results are consistent, you know you have a successful operating system and it’s time to scale up.
There are significant differences between the pilot phase and the mid-size industrial phase. Typically, in the pilot phase, you’re working with laboratory apparatus, like glass beakers and instruments. In a mid-size industrial phase, you’re working with steel equipment and the systems are purpose-built, or “skid-based”, on a far larger scale than the pilot phase.
At the pilot phase, the process is far more straightforward, but increasing capacity also increases complexity. The operating parameters are different. Your system will have a different flow rate than the smaller one. You have to learn about the different pressures and how to operate your larger system at the most efficient level.
You also have to understand how the temperature transitions across a larger vessel. This phase closely resembles a full production operation, on a smaller scale. Extended operation allows you to catalog and study results on a broader scale. This phase is typically done in the location where the full production operation will be located. This allows you to take advantages of existing infrastructure, zoning requirements and any permits needed, according to an article in Biofuels International, “Scaling Up Step by Step.”
This stage is a risk mitigation step so that you can move to the next stage confidently, knowing that your process and your system works well and that you have the experience to move up.
Once you’re comfortable at the mid-size industrial phase, it’s time to scale up again. You can either purchase larger systems, or add more systems of the same size. Either way, once again it’s time to relearn the systems and the parameters of a larger system. At this point, you can start thinking about harvesting those 300 acres and kicking into high production.
Throughout the process, make sure you have a strong support system from the company selling the system. They must be able to offer training, customer support, suggestions for improvement, and be willing to stand behind their product. The company should have a proven track record in the industry, with years of experience to draw from – they would have experienced many, if not all, the issues a start-up will face, and be able to successfully trouble-shoot.
The tiered approach to full production has many advantages, the most important being your ultimate success. There is a need for anyone getting into this business to educate themselves and learn about the business, the systems, and the process before jumping into high production.
The ideal scenario is a fully-automated system(s) that produces consistent results, thanks to the operator’s knowledge of the system. Companies promising customers that they can leap into high production with no experience are, at best, misleading the customers, and at worst, deliberately setting them up for failure.
If I were an unscrupulous business owner, that initial conversation could easily have gone like this:
“Hi, I want to buy the biggest system you have. I’ve got a 300-acre farm and I’m going to fill it with marijuana and I want to process it to extract the oil.”
Me: “Okay! I have a 2,000-liter system I can sell you! What’s your credit card number?”