Benchtop CO2 systems are said to make supercritical extraction affordable for small companies.

The cost of these systems, especially for full automation, has been a barrier to entry in the past, Nate Ames, director of supercritical engineering at Apeks, told NutraIngredients-USA. And getting the automation part right is key, Ames said, because while smaller manufacturers may struggle to afford the capital outlay for new equipment, they are even less able to afford expert personnel to run equipment that may require significant operator input.

Overcoming the automation hurdle

And making automation affordable is a major breakthrough for the company's latest device, called the 1500-1L. Developed on an existing platform, the device is designed for low-demand, light commercial environments. The company was able to match the cost of automation to the overall equipment cost, which Ames says has been a hurdle in the past.

"We kind of divide our nutrition customers into three categories. There are small mom-and-pop operations; they may own a lavender farm, and historically they've been selling parts of the lavender plant, and now they want to get into making their own oils, extracts or flavors. They're very low-volume, low-demand, niche operations." Ames said.

"There's the medium-scale level, where someone is making 50 pounds to 100 points of plant material per week on order. Then there's the large scale, where you can get up to 100 tons per week.


"At very large scales, the price of automating the equipment is a fraction of the total cost of the equipment. A large-scale piece of equipment can cost $500 million to $1 billion, so $100,000 for software equipment or controls is insignificant."" If you're a small to medium-sized company, the entire piece of equipment may only cost $100,000, so adding $100,000 of automation to it doubles the cost and has historically put them out of reach. Ames said, "We set our sights on solving that problem, and we just developed some new technology to make that happen." .

Apeks has been building supercritical CO2 Extraction Machine since its founding in 2001. The company's units are used for nutraceutical applications, including the extraction of specialty cannabis in those states where it is legal. Some units use supercritical carbon dioxide for cleaning, and some are even used in the oil and gas industry to separate water from oil coming out of wells.

The new benchtop system has its own electric high-pressure CO2 pump and temperature control unit, both of which are designed to run on a standard 110-volt circuit. 1500-1L benchtop uses Valveless Expansion Technology (VET), also developed by Apeks. VET separates the extracted oil from the liquid or supercritical CO2 stream using a proprietary pressure-reducing mechanism that has no constriction or bleed valve and will not cause system blockage during operation. And the system is designed to close the loop, so no CO2 is lost.

Easy switching to different materials

The VET system also allows the unit to be easily customized for different materials, Ames says. The process involves changing easily labeled parts, which means minimal training requirements and minimal errors. And the technology means it's easier to keep the device within specifications, Ames says, simplifying GMP compliance, at least as far as the extraction process is concerned. And the system is fully automated, so users don't need to be familiar with supercritical CO2 systems to operate them successfully, Ames says.

"That's one of the difficulties we had in coming up with the automation toolbox. We wanted the average company running it to be able to do everything," he said.

Ames said the system is designed for inputs as low as half a pound of material and ranges up to about 15 pounds. A basic end system can cost as little as $28,000. At that price point, the device has the potential to change the way small feedstock suppliers enter the market and could put a dent in the revenues of some companies that now offer CO2 extraction on a contract basis.

"We've spent a lot of time and engineering effort to make this as affordable as possible without sacrificing quality," Ames said.