Episode 7

Published on:

2nd Feb 2021

S1 E07 - Wiped Film Evaporators For Cannabis Oil Distillation

Learn how a wiped film evaporator works from the man that makes 'em best. John Hart, founder of Chemtech Services, joins us to discuss how his rolled film distillation machines are the best in the biz for the distillation of cannabis oil. John and Jason discuss the latest equipment offerings and innovations Chemtech is bringing to market, as well as the advantages to using multi-stage distillation units.


Jason Showard - 00:00:10 

Hello and welcome to Episode Seven of The Modern Extractor. This podcast focuses on the processes, equipment and science found inside a cannabis extraction laboratory. I'm your host Jason Showard, and I work professionally in the cannabis extraction field. Here in season one, we're focusing on ethanol extraction and post processing. With each episode digging deep into a particular stage in that process. The shows are released in an order that follows the workflow through a lab, as material makes its way from cultivar to concentrate. 


Jason Showard - 00:00:39 

Last week we had Greg Arias of Concentrated Science and Aftermath Labs on the show. He helped us demystify decarboxylation on a molecular level. We talked a bit about the differences between decarbing THC versus CBD. And I talked through my decarb SOPs. Moving on to this week's show, let's catch back up with our material on its way through the lab. So far we've performed a cold ethanol extraction in a centrifuge. We cold filtered the resulting miscella through an insecure filter. 


Jason Showard - 00:01:06 

We ran that miscella through a falling film evaporator to separate the oil and the ethanol. And we decarboxylated the crude oil we separated, converting the acidic forms of the cannabinoids into THC or CBD. This week we make our way to the most complicated machine in the lab, the wiped film evaporator. Technically, we'll be talking about a rolled film evaporator today, which is the best style of wiped film for use in the cannabis sector. Joining us today to discuss rolled film distillation is John Hart, founder of Chemtech Services. 


Jason Showard - 00:01:35 

John and his team currently have a ton of equipment out there in the field. You'll find their machines installed at the premier cannabis processing laboratories throughout the country and all over the world. They're always working on developing new equipment for our industry and interesting R&D projects. But I'll let John tell you all about that. Without any further ado, John Hart, welcome to The Modern Extractor. 


John Hart - 00:01:54 

Oh, thank you very much, Jason. Happy to be participating. 


Jason Showard - 00:01:57 

Absolutely glad to have you on today. Where are you calling in from? 


John Hart - 00:02:01 

Calling in from our headquarters in Lockport, Illinois. Lockport's a suburb of Chicago. 


Jason Showard - 00:02:09 

Right on. All right. What's the weather like out there right now? 


John Hart - 00:02:12 

We have an amazingly sunny day here. Unfortunately, it's really cold. It's about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. 


Jason Showard - 00:02:20 

All right. I'm in Los Angeles now. It's got a little rain recently, but we could use it. All right. Anyway, what was your path like to starting Chemtech? 


John Hart - 00:02:32 

OK, so I'd spent most of my career working for a couple of major chemical companies, and I did a lot of things. I mean, I did mergers and acquisitions. I was an engineer on the technical side. So I was also building or let's say managing the construction of chemical plants in addition to chemical plants around the world. And I, you know, in the early part of my career, I spent about 60% of my time outside of the United States. 


John Hart - 00:03:00 

And the nature of my job was such that I actually earned some pretty significant dollars for the companies I was working for. So at some point in my career, I decided, gee, maybe I should just strike out on my own and see if I can earn a little more money myself than I was getting paid a salary. 


Jason Showard - 00:03:21 

At what point did you decide it was time to, you know, just go ahead and jump for it? 


John Hart - 00:03:26 

You know, I think I was about 50 years old. Maybe 51 or 52. But that's about the point in time I did that. And Chemtech has been around for 15 years, so that gives you a little bit of a time perspective. 


Jason Showard - 00:03:45 

So were you already in distillation when you were traveling around doing your other jobs? 


John Hart - 00:03:51 

You know, the chemical industry is such that the technologies I was working with did utilize distillation methods. And I mean, actually, my first major job at Ashland Chemical, Ashland was a subsidiary of Ashland Oil. So you can imagine distillation is a big part of processing oil. 


Jason Showard - 00:04:13 

Yeah, certainly is. So if that's how it all began, give us a little bit of a bird's eye view of what Chemtech is today. 


John Hart - 00:04:22 

OK, so I typically regard Chemtech as being two divisions. One division is the design and fabrication of our core technology, which is distillation systems. But we also do other technology, especially pilot plants for chemical companies, as may be required. The other division is our toll processing of chemicals division. And we have a lot of really major clients. I mean, I would say pretty much Fortune 200 companies. We distill some really sophisticated stuff. 


Jason Showard - 00:05:00 

OK, so what industries do you typically serve? 


John Hart - 00:05:04 

You know, historically we were very petroleum, petrochemical, specialty chemical oriented. In more recent years, obviously, the hemp and cannabis folks discovered that our high vacuum distillation equipment could be really useful for separating the cannabinoids from the other riff-raff molecules in the extracted oils. 


Jason Showard - 00:05:30 

I can certainly attest to that. I've used your machines and I absolutely love them. I'll get into what you offer in a moment here, but you've kind of brought up a great segway into the cannabis field. Tell me about the moment that you realized that your equipment was being used to distill cannabis oil. What was your initial reaction to that? 


John Hart - 00:05:50 

You know, it kind of started when a client out in California actually asked us if we could separate the CBD from a hemp oil that they were importing from Europe. And, you know, our reaction was, "Well, it's just another essential oil to us." And so we asked them to send us the sample. They sent us the sample. We processed it and sent the results back to them, the distillate residue fractions. And they were pretty happy because we had definitely separated and concentrated up the CBD. 


John Hart - 00:06:30 

So I think probably within about six months of that exercise, they bought a two-stage KD10 system from us, which they continue to operate out in the California area. Roughly about that same time, though, another California organization had called us and was asking for quotations on some of our smaller laboratory units. And we came to find out that they were distilling THC, and they ended up buying a lot of our lab scale units because they had multiple locations. Also about that time, we hooked up with an outfit called Helderpad, and Helderpad had a processing license in the state of Washington and they ultimately became our agent. 


John Hart - 00:07:21 

They were operating one of our units. They liked it and became our agent. They've done a really good job selling our equipment and they continue to distill out in their facilities in Seattle. 


Jason Showard - 00:07:33 

That's great. So a lot of the players in this space are making equipment specifically targeted at the cannabis market. Well, others kind of fall into the "fell into it" category because you already had something you made that was a good fit. From what you've explained to us so far, it seems like you are already in the game and then your equipment was just the right option for what the folks in the cannabis industry needed. With that said, what are you doing to keep the people that are targeting the cannabis field off your heels? Are you doing anything specific to stay relevant and hold your position? 


John Hart - 00:08:10 

Yeah, I mean, we actively have about six different R&D projects that actually are associated with more novel methods of processing cannabinoid molecules. But in the meantime, we've obviously embellished our existing offering to accommodate the industry. I mean, for example, we introduced some decarboxylation units into the industry a few years ago. We've also introduced specialty ethanol distillation units. Our two-stage distillation systems that will allow the user to get his ethanol content in the final oil down below a tenth of a percent. 


John Hart - 00:09:00 

And those obviously are peer reviewed. So they can pass the scrutiny of the regulators in the West Coast states. But like I said, we're continuing to work on things. I think one of the bigger novelties we brought to the industry also was the introduction of the turbo molecular pump into, not only cannabis processing, but short path distillation processing. Historically, the turbo molecular pump had been regarded as a little bit too fragile for distillation operations. But our primary supplier of vacuum equipment, Leybold Vacuum, came to us and said, "Hey, we have a new design. We'd like you guys to test it because we think it's robust enough to use in distillation." 


John Hart - 00:09:49 

So we actually engaged in a testing program that took longer than a year, and worked very closely with Leybold to develop the proper setup for the use of that turbo molecular pump in distillation. And I mean, just to give you an example, some of our early work was done with distilling epoxy resins, which are notoriously hard on the vacuum pumps. 


John Hart - 00:10:22 

But it turned out the pump ended up being pretty robust. And we introduced that into the industry. And absolutely, we're the first company to introduce the turbo molecular pump. And I think in general, the folks in the cannabis and hemp sectors like the turbo molecular pump. Like anything, any piece of vacuum equipment, it's got its pros and cons. But we're big fans of the turbo pump. 


Jason Showard - 00:10:48 

Yeah, I can certainly personally attest to the fact that you guys killed it on, you know, R&Ding that turbo. I had a counterpart I used to work with that we would be constantly doing battle about how hard to run things because I wanted to go easy on that turbo, and then I would leave for a couple of days and come back. And I know that it got tortured. So we actually went so far as to take the system apart and look in there, and you could see distillate built up on the blades of the turbo, which was killing me. But the thing just kept working. So well done on your R&D. 


John Hart - 00:11:23 

Yeah, no, it ended up being robust enough. I mean, we've also tried to get more focused on low temperature chillers and cold trap technologies to try and preclude the contaminants condensing into the turbo pump. 


Jason Showard - 00:11:42 

Yeah, that would be ideal. 


John Hart - 00:11:44 

Yeah. No, it is a constant battle. I mean the nature of the terpenoids in particular, they're good carrier molecules for some of the heavier or higher molecular weight molecules in oil extract. And these terpenoids are really tough to condense in the cold trap. You have to get to extremely low temperatures to achieve that. Maybe even as low as -100 degrees Celsius. But I mean, we went into it with knowledge that the folks who are using liquid nitrogen cold traps were tremendously successful in keeping their vacuum systems clean. 


John Hart - 00:12:26 

So we know if you get down to about -120 C, you're going to be running clean vacuuming equipment. 


Jason Showard - 00:12:35 

All right. That's good info. We'll jump into that in a little bit here when we get to the technical section. But you piqued my interest on a couple of things that you mentioned. Specifically your ethanol recovery and your decarb units that you've released for the ethanol recovery. Is that a system to recover all of the ethanol used in extraction, or is that specifically to get the residual ethanol out of your crude oil? 


John Hart - 00:13:00 

No, that's to recover the ethanol that's being used for ethanol extraction. 


Jason Showard - 00:13:07 

Okay, so all of it. 


John Hart - 00:13:08 

Yeah, all of it. All of it. And unlike many of our competitors, we are using a really, a fairly powerful vacuum pump on the system. You know, having said that, we typically like to see our clients run that system, maybe around 200 millimeters of mercury. Whereas that vacuum pump will easily take them down to one millimeters of mercury. 


John Hart - 00:13:31 

But at 200 millimeters, it operates pretty well. And when we designed the initial system, our target was 50 liters per our processing rate. And when we tested in our own facility, we saw that the system had so many features that were overkill that we were able to run the system at 200 liters per hour. So it's a robust system. 


Jason Showard - 00:13:58 

Wow, that is fantastic. If somebody wants to look that up on your website, what do you call that one? 


John Hart - 00:14:02 

It's a falling film/rolled film system, but it's probably indicated on the website under ethanol distillation. But it's a nifty little unit. I mean, "a little unit", it's being a two-stage unit, it's shall I say, bigger than most of the falling film and rising film units that you see out there. But like I said, the intent was to get that ethanol content to a low enough level that we could process the oil in our short path units. 


Jason Showard - 00:14:33 

So now from that stage, you mentioned decarb units. Do your units, is it a modular setup where you can put your decarb unit after this ethanol recovery unit? 


John Hart - 00:14:44 

Yeah, the decarb unit itself is a pretty independent unit with its own control enclosure. The only thing that I would caution anybody about, that's dealing with both ethanol, and let's say the de-ethylated oil, is ethanol, handling ethanol has to be done in a class one, division two electrical environment. Which, you know, is essentially an explosion proof environment. So the decarb unit itself is not really made in an explosion proof fashion. We can, but, you know, again, it's better to put your decarb unit and your short path unit outside of your classified zone. 


John Hart - 00:15:30 

And, you know, again, it's just a function of the equipment you use. For example, the turbo molecular pump, they don't make a class one, division two version of the turbo molecular pump. 


Jason Showard - 00:15:42 

Gotcha. Yeah. And it costs more money to build those C1D2 zones anyway. So if you can keep that as small as possible, you're going to end up building your lab in a more efficient manner. 


John Hart - 00:15:51 

Yeah, exactly. And if you've got open space, and you've got one space in that open space designated C1D2, then I think the, if I remember National Electric Code, if you get 15 feet beyond the classified zone, then you're outside the classified zone. So, you know, again, distance always helps when it comes to potential of flammable or explosive vapors. 


Jason Showard - 00:16:17 

All right. Interesting. What's the best selling item that you sell into the cannabis market specifically out of your offerings? 


John Hart - 00:16:25 

OK, so we sell a pretty broad spectrum of units. But if I had to pick any one unit, that seems to be a favorite, that would be the KD10 unit. Either in the single-stage or two-stage version. But the single-stage is a real workhorse. It's very easy to use. It's you know, everything is pretty much fully integrated into the skid, and we find our customers really like that unit. 


Jason Showard - 00:16:55 

All right. Yeah, I can agree with that one. I've seen them in use and had a chance to play with them. My original unit that I got from you guys was a Mini 5, that by the time we got done strapping extras on to it, it was almost KD6. And then I've had a chance to play with a friendly labs, KD10 for a little while. And that thing's a fantastic unit. It's beautiful. I love it. 


John Hart - 00:17:20 

Yeah. I mean, even our, the company that does most of our installs out in California, they look at the KD10 and they've told me it's a pleasure to install those units because they're so functional. 


Jason Showard - 00:17:35 

Getting a little bit more into the technical side of things here. I like to listen to podcasts kind of when my hands are full or I'm driving or riding a bike or just doing something where I can't watch video or look at pictures. And I think it's pretty common amongst most podcast listeners. So I try to cater to that audience....

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About the Podcast

The Modern Extractor
Professional extractors talk extraction!
The Modern Extractor is a podcast about the processes, equipment, and science found inside a cannabis extraction laboratory. Season one focuses on the process of ethanol extraction and post processing into either distillate or isolate. Season two focuses on hydrocarbon extraction and the craft concentrates that it can produce. Each episode digs deep into a particular stage in the extraction and finishing processes, and we discuss the various approaches with industry expert guests. Episodes are released in an order which follows the work flow through a lab, following material closely through the process from cultivar to concentrate.