Extracting Value in a Budding Industry
Advanced Extraction Systems Inc. (AESI)
Canadian engineering company Advanced Extraction Systems Inc. (AESI) designs and engineers modular industrial extraction systems for the cannabis and hemp industries. This Prince Edward Island-based firm was founded in 2015 and ships its automated cGMP certified supercritical extraction systems throughout Canada and expanding markets around the world.
Before the war on drugs, cannabis and cannabis oil were used for millennia and hailed for their medicinal value. When looking specifically at cannabis oil, there are a number of claimed health effects. These include stress and anxiety relief, asthma symptom reduction, pain relief, skin protection, hair and ocular health increases and seizure frequency and severity lessening. Some even claim that it has anti-cancer effects.
Other possible applications for cannabis oil are in treating neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, as well as Tourette syndrome and autism, and the list goes on. Although more research is certainly needed to prove some of these claims, for many, however, feeling better is all the proof they need.
Today, the value of these plant extracts is once again being acknowledged. Thanks to a greater acceptance of the advantages of medical marijuana and the increasing legalization and changing perceptions around recreational marijuana use, a new market is emerging, and companies like AESI are capitalizing.
David Campbell, co-founder and chief operating officer at AESI, provided some insight as to how the company got started. “We got introduced to supercritical fluid extraction back in 2011, when a client was interested in building a supercritical plant to extract bioactive from a agricultural feedstock. We had the manufacturing capabilities, but we were missing a supercritical fluid extraction designer,” he explained.
“After searching the globe, we were able to find a designer who had thirty plus years experience in the (SFE) industry. Seeing a demand for this extraction technology in North America we decided to start our own extraction company, Origins Xtractions Ltd. and began offering extraction services to biotech, pharmaceutical, and nutraceutical companies to produce bioactives at bench and pilot scale.”
When the legislation changed in 2015, he and his partner Peter Toombs decided to launch AESI to solely focus on the extraction cannabis and hemp. The company has since grown rapidly, positioning itself to take full advantage of the changing regulatory framework and working to alter perceptions so the industry can flourish.
While legalization has taken place in many states and countries around the world, there is still a substantially untapped market out there, and AESI is doing what it can to get ahead of legislation both in terms of its products and as a leader in establishing quality standards.
In 2016, AESI sold its first industrial-scale system to Tweed Marijuana Inc., a subsidiary of Canopy Growth Corporation, and it has steadily grown since then. While the focus is on the North American market, it has also had some success abroad.
“We just sold a system in Germany, so we’re quite excited to get into the European market, and we’re talking to companies in Australia, quite a few in Latin America and Africa,” Campbell noted.
AESI is headquartered in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island and has additional manufacturing and service centres in Abbotsford, British Columbia and Loris, South Carolina from which it continues to create its products and its extraction process.
Customers around the world are afforded start-to-finish support through the expert design, fabrication, installation, commissioning, training, service, and maintenance of extraction systems, by expert engineers and technicians who are guided by AESI’s scientific advisory group.
“We have ten engineers in-house, mechanical or chemical, and we have four Ph.Ds. on our scientific advisory board. We have twelve technicians who are doing fabrications, so our techs have to be trained for pressure welding,” said Campbell. There is a great deal of expertise at AESI, and the team continues to grow with demand.
“We try to hire very smart young engineers, and we also have some senior engineers as well, to mentor them along. I see our team as being the strongest in the industry, especially with our scientific advisory board and their vast experience. We have over sixty years of experience in supercritical process and design which no one else has in North America,” he added.
AESI has earned its place at the forefront of this emerging market as it continues to develop innovative CO2 extraction systems. From the products to the processes, and the quality standards that are upheld along the way, it constantly endeavours to take a position of leadership.
“We’re trying to get to the forefront for innovation. Our facility is CRN-certified, which is pressure code for Canada, ASME-certified which is pressure code for the U.S., and we’re ISO certified,” Campbell explained. CRN stands for Canadian Registration Number and registers pressure vessel design as well as pressure vessel fittings and piping. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers is a professional engineering association.
AESI has a partnership with Diversified Metal Engineering (DME) to make its equipment, and this exclusive manufacturing contract is critical to its ability to deliver quality equipment. DME has a quarter century of experience making stainless steel pressure systems on an industrial scale. Its systems are not only industrial scale but are also laboratory quality.
“We also validate our systems to cGMP standards [current good manufacturing practices],” Campbell noted. “That is not imposed by the industry, but we’re trying to get ahead of the industry because we see that as something Health Canada and other countries will introduce in the near future.”
AESI has two software partners in Siemens and Allen Bradley which has enabled it to offer cGMP-certified software, moving the process in the direction of the pharmaceutical industry as far as accountability and purity.
“cGMP certified software will help to ensure consistent quality extraction by allowing the operator to have full process control, tracking temperature, pressure, and flow rate. This improves performance to guarantee ideal, consistent recipe formulation.
“We’re able to take a sample live, every ten minutes, so we can help optimize our customers, plus they are getting live analytics as well. On the post-extraction side, we saw the need for improvements in winterization because it’s a very manual-labour-intensive process, so we’ve now developed a fully-automated winterization system,” explained Campbell. Winterization is also known as dewaxing and is a process which is used to remove fats and waxes that would otherwise cause the oil to become cloudy when cooled.
In addition to system performance, it offers modular, expandable and industrial scale extraction systems that range in size, providing customers with the highest yields and the most efficient systems to meet their needs. From the milling to the final product, through the SFE process, the yield is maximized with AESI equipment not just in quantity, but most importantly, quality.
AESI not only provides the equipment necessary to ensure the CO2 extraction process is operating as safely and efficiently for its customers, but it also provides installations, commissioning, training and optimization of the extraction systems. Its total project management services include preventative maintenance and spare part packages.
Since its founding, the company has committed to working with suppliers that have a reputation for quality, experience, and service. “We use the best pump in the industry, which is LEWA from Germany,” Campbell noted. “One rule of thumb is all of our key suppliers must have at least thirty years of experience in supercritical extraction with a proven track record of success.
“We rate our extraction and separator vessels at 5000 psi, to improve fractionation capabilities of our system in order to separate key cannabis bioactivates. We are always looking at ways to develop new technologies for the separation CBD and THC,” he said. “We try to approach the industry a little bit differently.”
“There is obviously pre-extraction, so milling of the material, and then product handling. So, we were looking at what was available in the industry as far as products in that area, and we saw the need, instead of pouring plant material right into an extractor, we designed a custom basket which fits in the extractor,” Campbell explained.
AESI also designed and fabricated a decarboxylation oven to improve the volumes of extracts being produced, as extraction of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) was typically done in very small ovens. The design incorporated its custom baskets that could be put right in the oven and hoisted out and brought directly to the extractor, using the same basket in both stages of the extraction process.
Decarboxylation – also known as activating or ‘decarbing’ – is a chemical reaction that happens through the application of heat, transforming cannabinoid acids like tetrahydrocannabinolic acid (THCA) in the plant material into delta9-tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive compound known as THC. For smokers, this chemical reaction occurs when a joint is lit, but in manufacturing edibles, an oven is first used to heat the cannabis and activate the compounds that will fasten to receptors in the brain and produce a high when the product is eaten.
In addition to THC that gives a high, numerous other compounds can be found in cannabis, including those with medicinal uses like cannabinol, cannabidiol, cannabigerol, and cannabichromene. These cannabinoids are believed to have anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving qualities.
SFE allows for the extraction of a very pure, high-value product from materials that, in many cases, would have otherwise been considered waste, and AESI has found a way to harness the advantages of the extraction system to offer the highest ‘true’ flow rate in the industry.
Supercritical extraction is more efficient than traditional extraction methods that rely on the use of chemical solvents, which are damaging to the environment, can affect the quality of the extract, and must be carefully stored and disposed of.
Campbell is starting to see more competition come to life in the market, but it has not hindered AESI’s growth. “In Canada, we are definitely taking the lead in the industry, trying to advance the evolving market with new, innovative products,” he stated.
The company has experienced continued growth, and when asked about plans for the future Campbell replied, “I think we have the right recipe now,” AESI just needs to keep innovating and adapting to remain a market leader in supercritical extraction processes and systems.
“Our long-term goal is to keep automating the entire process. We call it ‘The Ultimate,’ so we start at the mill, and we want to offer every piece of equipment along the way,” said Campbell. This is something which AESI will undoubtedly achieve, and there is already a plan to see it in action.
“If we’re not going to build it, if someone else has say thirty-plus-years of experience in distillation, for example, we will try to partner with somebody like that, so we can make the most fully automated system from start to finish,” explained Campbell. AESI plans to grow strategically, building partnerships along the way to continue to extract value out of this budding industry where it can.