The Whole Plant Extraction Blog

To Automate or Not to Automate? The Question on Every New Extractor's Mind.

Fritz Chess

Whether 'tis nobler to press a button or to know thy system will not break. 

The subject of automation for supercritical CO2 extractors has been a topic of debate for quite some time. As the world rushes headlong into automating everything from industrial manufacturing processes to driverless cars it is only natural that business owners would be interested in automation options for their botanical extractors. Before addressing the pros and cons of various types of automation, it's important to understand the process of using a supercritical CO2 extractor from start to finish.

How Supercritical CO2 Extraction works

The first stage of CO2 extraction is preparing the herb for the extractor. This begins with drying the herb. CO2 is greatly affected by moisture that changes its PH and polarity. Water turns CO2 more acidic and more polar, meaning it will be more likely to pull chlorophyll and less efficient at dissolving oils. After drying the herb to less than 10% moisture it must be ground up to a powder. Usually 1-3mm diameter is ideal. The dried, ground herb is then poured into the extractor vessel and the cap of the extractor vessel is secured down.

It is important to note that the above description describes 80-90% of the labor involved in doing an extraction. While it would be possible to automate much of this process, no company currently offers equipment that eliminates or reduces the physical labor involved in preparing an extractor.

After the system has been loaded with ground herb and sealed up it is time to introduce CO2 to the unit. Tanks of liquid CO2 are attached to a piping port. A valve is opened on the tank that allows CO2 to flow into the extractor. This process also involves manual labor and no automation option currently exists.

Learn more about CO2 Extraction:

CO2 Extraction Process

Manual vs. Semi-automated vs. Fully-automated Extraction Process

Once the CO2 has entered into the extractor the various differences between full automation, semi-automation and manual units become relevant. A fully automated system would allow the operator to simply push a button and the program would automatically set the pressure and temperature specifications and begin pumping the CO2 through the botanical material. Valves would automatically open and shut as needed. At a specified time interval, the system would stop extracting. A few valves would automatically go from open to shut and vice versa. The CO2 would then be pumped out of the system until the pressure dropped to zero. At this point, the operator would manually open up the extractor and retrieve the extracted oil as well as remove the extracted herb from the extractor vessel.

A fully-automated system would also provide data tracking which would record temperatures, pressures, run time and any other issues that came up during the extraction. A semi-manual system, like the name says, would provide some of the features mentioned but not all. It might provide a screenshot that directs the operator which valves to turn in the proper sequence to start or stop the unit and let you know the position of the valve and whether it was correct. It might provide data tracking to record the parameters of the extraction. A full or semi automated system might also provide remote monitoring from a cell phone or other device. All in all, these features provide a convenience factor but do not significantly improve the function of the extractor nor make the extraction any faster or more stable.

A manual system means all functions are performed by hand. When CO2 is entered into the system a few valves have to be turned to get the gas to the proper vessels. Once this is complete a few more valves are turned to get the CO2 flowing in a loop where it can extract the oil and drop it into the separator. Once this happens the system continuously extracts for the next several hours and nothing else needs to be done. When the process is complete, a few valves are flipped again and the gas is pumped back to storage or vented off. Temperature and pressure are measured with dial face gauges throughout the system. The total amount of time spent getting the extraction going and then shutting it down is roughly 10 minutes or less. Data tracking and remote monitoring can be added to a manual system.

The Pros and Cons of Automation

There is a myth going around amongst the uninitiated that an automated CO2 extractor performs a more stable extraction than a manual system. Actually, it's often just the opposite. An automated system has sensors throughout the device that use probes extending into the piping, providing feedback to the computer regarding temperature and pressure. These probes can get coated with oils and resins which can cause inaccurate readings or complete failure. It's recommended that all automated systems also have dial face manual gauges so that failures in the automation can be more easily detected. This is a common point of failure. Other common areas of breakdown are failing solenoid valves and various kinds of "error" signals on the control screen. Back pressure regulators, valveless expansion systems and other types of pressure controls that are tied into an automation system are particularly prone to failure.

When an automated extractor breaks, a visit by the manufacturer is often required meaning long delays and downtime.

One misunderstanding that investors in CO2 extractors make is the idea that if they buy an automated extractor, they can hire any "monkey" to run it. It should be clear from the previous operation descriptions that a certain level of mechanical, artistic, and organizational ability is required regardless of whether the operator simply pushes a button or has to turn a couple valves. Although it's not necessary to hire a chemical engineer, a suitable employee should have some type of background in operating and working on mechanical devices such as cars, heavy machinery, HVAC, plumbing, etc.

The two most useful automation features to have in a CO2 extractor are data tracking and remote monitoring. When a special technique is used that results in a unique product you want to make sure your machine remembers how it was done. Receiving alerts on your phone and being able to view the settings from anywhere gives you the peace of mind of knowing your extractor is running properly and generating revenue regardless of your location.

A properly designed manual unit will be almost maintenance free. There are no electronics to break. Pumps, valves, and gauges are easy to access and replace quickly when seal failures occur which is generally the only issue. Pressure is regulated by a metering needle valve which has only one moving part and almost never fails.

Another common myth in the debate over automated versus manual is that an automated unit can be left unattended while a manual extractor must be attended to at all times. An Eden Labs system takes about a half hour from when you start putting herb in the extractor vessel until the system is up to pressure and running smoothly. There is nothing to do after that for the next several hours. We hear many stories from customers about the adventures they have while their extractor pours out money including surfing, dirt biking, golfing, or of course, preparing material for another run and preforming other work tasks.

So where does Eden Labs stand in terms of automation?

Although Eden Labs built its first fully automated extractor in 2006, we are often thought of as the company that doesn't automate. This is not entirely true. Automation does not come standard on oursystems and almost all of our customers prefer a manually run system to fully utilize the tunabilty of co2 from sub to supercritical, reverse flow, etc. and create their own extraction parameters and IP, reduce down time and to keep the IP developed in the process from being collected by the manufacturer of some systems. At Eden, automation is an option. We currently recommend a semi-automated package that does the data tracking and remote monitoring that provides benefit to the processor without sacrificing control or exorbitant cost. More advanced packages are available.

Much of the reason Eden Labs is known for not having automation is customer driven. Many people have been burned with constantly failing automation and have come to us due to our reputation making the extractor with the least amount of maintenance on the market. Here's an example: There is a company in southern Oregon that has an Eden Labs unit, an extractor made in India, and an extractor made by a well known manufacturer in the Midwest. The two non-Eden units were automated. The Indian-manufactured unit runs an average of about 4 days before breaking. The unit made in the Midwest broke so often, and ran so poorly, that after paying for fix-after-fix they mothballed the system. Meanwhile, the Eden Labs extractor has been running 24/7 for a few years now with nothing but a few quick seal changes required. The ROI on this Eden Labs extraction system is well into the millions.

At Eden Labs we believe there will always be a market for a manual unit and we intend to always offer it. At the same time, we are researching levels of automation that have never been seen before such as an automated terpene separator that gives you a pure terpene fraction early in the run. We're also designing an automated valving system that can be operated manually should the need arise. Innovation in extraction starts here.

Eden Labs has been in business for 22 years. Nobody can match our experience and understanding of proper extractor design and how it fits the needs of our customers. Business is hard enough, your system should work well and be backed by people who are dedicated to improving your bottom line and quality of life

September 05, 2017