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The Molecular Separation of Hemp Oil John F. Hart, Chemtech Services, Inc.
In today’s context, it is helpful to define the exact meaning of “Thin Film Distillation.” Thin Film Distillation is accomplished using an apparatus which distributes the chemical compound to be distilled into a thin film (typically less than 1.00 mm thick) across the evaporative surface to facilitate separation (through boiling) of a specific molecular fraction for subsequent condensation. Thin film evaporator systems typically include a heating facility to initiate boiling and a condenser to re-condense the resultant vapors. Vacuum may also be applied, which has the benefit of reducing the observed boiling point of the material to be distilled.
During the middle of the 20th century thin film and wiped film distillation methods matured into the high vacuum, short path methods, referred to as molecular separation, where separation takes place at vacuum levels below 0.01 mm Hg (or absolute pressure <0.01 mm Hg). There are a number of different types of molecular distillation units but the most popular styles are normally defined as: (a) rotary stills; (b) centrifugal stills; and (c) wiped film, short path stills.
The wiped film, short path still has proven to be the most versatile system and encompasses applications from laboratory scale (e.g., process rates less than 5 liters per hour) to pilot plant and commercial scale systems which attain processing rates in excess of 5,000 liters per hour. This paper will focus primarily on the wiped film, short path distillation unit, its principles of operation and its application to hemp oil products.
The most important benefits of molecular distillation are basically twofold:
Molecular Distillation allows the distillation of high boiling point products at moderate temperatures through the application of high vacuum; and
The short exposure period to evaporative temperatures minimizes the potential for thermal degradation or isomerization.
Molecular Separation methods alternatively known as high vacuum, short path distillation, have been utilized for decades for processing agricultural oils, including essential oils having similar characteristics to hemp oil.
More recently, these separation methods have been employed in the processing of hemp oil for medicinal and recreational uses to facilitate the separation of high value hemp oil fractions, such as THC and CBD, with minimal thermal degradation of the molecules. Molecular Separation methods also allow concentrating of these compounds (>90%) to provide added value to the resultant fractions.
This paper will review the processes of moderate and high vacuum separation methods and specific results achieved in the processing of hemp oil products.
Concepts and Development of
Molecular Separation generally falls within the scope of distillation methods referred to as “Thin Film Distillation.” Thin film distillation was developed in the early 20th century as scientists discovered that separation (or boiling) of lower boiling point molecules from higher boiling point compounds occurred more quickly when the crude product was dispersed into a thin film. This discovery lead to the earliest evaporators known as “falling film evaporators” which utilized a heated vertical tube to evaporate low boiling point products from a film falling down the inside diameter of the tube. Vacuum pumps were soon applied to the process to accelerate evaporation and had the additional benefit of reducing the boiling point of the product being distilled. The falling film evaporator later evolved into the wiped film evaporator which utilized a mechanical wiper system to assure the product to be distilled was “wiped” into a uniform film thickness.
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