Tag Archives: dSPE

dSPE cleanups

The Grass Isn’t Always Greener: Removal of Purple Pigmentation from Cannabis

By Danielle Mackowsky
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dSPE cleanups
Cannabis strains used (clockwise from top left): Agent Orange, Tahoe OG, Blue Skunk, Grand Daddy and Grape Drink

Cannabis-testing laboratories have the challenge of removing a variety of unwanted matrix components from plant material prior to running extracts on their LC-MS/MS or GC-MS. The complexity of the cannabis plant presents additional analytical challenges that do not need to be accounted for in other agricultural products. Up to a third of the overall mass of cannabis seed, half of usable flower and nearly all extracts can be contributed to essential oils such as terpenes, flavonoids and actual cannabinoid content1. The biodiversity of this plant is exhibited in the over 2,000 unique strains that have been identified, each with their own pigmentation, cannabinoid profile and overall suggested medicinal use2. While novel methods have been developed for the removal of chlorophyll, few, if any, sample preparation methods have been devoted to removal of other colored pigments from cannabis.

Cannabis samples following QuEChERS extraction

Sample Preparation

Cannabis samples from four strains of plant (Purple Drink, Tahoe OG, Grand Daddy and Agent Orange) were hydrated using deionized water. Following the addition of 10 mL acetonitrile, samples were homogenized using a SPEX Geno/Grinder and stainless steel grinding balls. QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) non-buffered extraction salts were then added and samples were shaken. Following centrifugation, an aliquot of the supernatant was transferred to various blends of dispersive SPE (dSPE) salts packed into centrifugation tubes. All dSPE tubes were vortexed prior to being centrifuged. Resulting supernatant was transferred to clear auto sampler vials for visual analysis. Recoveries of 48 pesticides and four mycotoxins were determined for the two dSPE blends that provided the most pigmentation removal.

Seven dSPE blends were evaluated for their ability to remove both chlorophyll and purple pigmentation from cannabis plant material:

  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg C18, 50 mg Chlorofiltr®
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 25 mg PSA, 7.5 mg GCB
  • 150 mg MgSO4, 50 mg PSA, 50 mg C18, 50 mg GCB

Based on the coloration of the resulting extracts, blends A, F and G were determined to be the most effective in removing both chlorophyll (all cannabis strains) and purple pigments (Purple Drink and Grand Daddy). Previous research regarding the ability of large quantities of GCB to retain planar pesticides allowed for the exclusion of blend G from further analyte quantitation3. The recoveries of the 48 selected pesticides and four mycotoxins for blends A and F were determined.

dSPE cleanups
Grand Daddy following various dSPE cleanups


A blend of MgSO4, C18, PSA and Chlorofiltr® allowed for the most sample clean up, without loss of pesticides and mycotoxins, for all cannabis samples tested. Average recovery of the 47 pesticides and five mycotoxins using the selected dSPE blend was 75.6% were as the average recovery when including GCB instead of Chlorofiltr® was 67.6%. Regardless of the sample’s original pigmentation, this blend successfully removed both chlorophyll and purple hues from all strains tested. The other six dSPE blends evaluated were unable to provide the sample clean up needed or had previously demonstrated to be detrimental to the recovery of pesticides routinely analyzed in cannabis.


(1)           Recommended methods for the identification and analysis of cannabis and cannabis products, United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (2009)

(2)            W. Ross, Newsweek, (2016)

(3)            Koesukwiwat, Urairat, et al. “High Throughput Analysis of 150 Pesticides in Fruits and Vegetables Using QuEChERS and Low-Pressure Gas Chromatography Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry.” Journal of Chromatography A, vol. 1217, no. 43, 2010, pp. 6692–6703., doi:10.1016/j.chroma.2010.05.012.

From The Lab

QuEChERS 101

By Danielle Mackowsky
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Sample preparation experts and analytical chemists are quick to suggest QuEChERS (Quick, Easy, Cheap, Effective, Rugged and Safe) to cannabis laboratories that are analyzing both flower and edible material for pesticides, mycotoxins and cannabinoid content. Besides having a quirky name, just what makes QuEChERS a good extraction technique for the complicated matrices of cannabis products? By understanding the chemistry behind the extraction and the methodology’s history, cannabis laboratories can better implement the technology and educate their workforce.

QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salt blends can be packed into mylar pouches for use with any type of centrifuge tubes

In 2003, a time when only eight states had legalized the use of medical cannabis, a group of four researchers published an article in the Journal of AOAC International that made quite the impact in the residue monitoring industry. Titled Fast and Easy Multiresidue Method Employing Acetonitrile Extraction/Partitioning and “Dispersive Solid-Phase Extraction” for the Determination of Pesticide Residues in Produce, Drs. Michael Anastassiades, Steven Lehotay, Darinka Štajnbaher and Frank Schenck demonstrate how hundreds of pesticides could be extracted from a variety of produce samples through the use of two sequential steps: an initial phase partitioning followed by an additional matrix clean up. In the paper’s conclusion, the term QuEChERS was officially coined. In the fourteen years that have followed, this article has been cited over 2800 times. Subsequent research publications have demonstrated its use in matrices beyond food products such as biological fluids, soil and dietary supplements for a plethora of analytes including phthalates, pharmaceutical compounds and most recently cannabis.

QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes
QuEChERS salts can come prepacked into centrifuge tubes

The original QuEChERS extraction method utilized a salt blend of 4 g of magnesium sulfate and 1 g of sodium chloride. A starting sample volume of 10 g and 10 mL of acetonitrile (ACN) were combined with the above-mentioned salt blend in a centrifuge tube. The second step, dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) cleanup, included 150 mg of magnesium sulfate and 25 mg of primary secondary amine (PSA). Subsequent extraction techniques, now known as AOAC and European QuEChERS, suggested the use of buffered salts in order to protect any base sensitive analytes that may be critical to one’s analysis. Though the pH of the extraction solvent may differ, all three methods agree that ACN should be used as the starting organic phase. ACN is capable of extracting the broadest range of analytes and is compatible with both LC-MS/MS and GC-MS systems. While ethyl acetate has also been suggested as a starting solvent, it is incompatible with LC-MS/MS and extracts a larger amount of undesirable matrix components in the final aliquot.

All laboratories, including cannabis and food safety settings, are constantly looking for ways to decrease their overhead costs, batch out the most samples possible per day, and keep their employees trained and safe. It is not a stretch to say that QuEChERS revolutionized the analytical industry and made the above goals tangible achievements. In the original publication, Anastassiades et al. established that recoveries of over 85% for pesticides residues were possible at a cost as low as $1 per ten grams of sample. Within forty minutes, up to twelve samples were fully extracted and ready to be analyzed by GC-MS, without the purchase of any specialized equipment. Most importantly, no halogenated solvents were necessary, making this an environmentally conscious concept. Due to the nature of the cannabis industry, laboratories in this field are able to decrease overall solvent usage by a greater amount than what was demonstrated in 2003. The recommended starting sample for cannabis laboratories is only one gram of flower, or a tenth of the starting volume that is commonly utilized in the food safety industry. This reduction in sample volume then leads to a reduction in acetonitrile usage and thus QuEChERS is a very green extraction methodology.

The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used
The complexity of the cannabis matrix can cause great extraction difficulties if proper techniques are not used

As with any analytical method, QuEChERS is not perfect or ideal for every laboratory setting. Challenges remain in the cannabis industry where the polarity of individual pesticides monitored in some states precludes them from being amenable to the QuEChERS approach. For cannabis laboratories looking to improve their pesticide recoveries, decrease their solvent usage and not invest their resources into additional bench top equipment, QuEChERS is an excellent technique to adopt. The commercialization of salt blends specific for cannabis flowers and edibles takes the guesswork out of which products to use. The growth of cannabis technical groups within established analytical organizations has allowed for better communication among scientists when it comes to best practices for this complicated matrix. Overall, it is definitely worth implementing the QuEChERS technique in one’s cannabis laboratory in order to streamline productivity without sacrificing your results.

Automated Solutions for Cannabis Laboratories: Part I

By Danielle Mackowsky
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Using well plates for dSPE sorbents can help expedite sample clean up.

Sample volume remains to be the primary influence on whether an automated solution is a logical investment for a cannabis testing facility. Due to both the complexity of the material being tested and the extraction approach at hand, it may be difficult to find an automated platform that can fully accommodate your laboratory’s needs. Hamilton Robotics in collaboration with United Chemical Technologies (UCT) has developed a solution that allows for automation of specific sample clean up steps commonly utilized in cannabis pesticide testing schemes. The MPE2 Positive Pressure Extraction/Evaporation Module is a standalone manifold that can also be incorporated into a number of automated liquid handling decks. Used in tandem with dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) salts/sorbents packed into a 96 well plate, this combination provides laboratories with high throughput extraction convenience with comparable results to traditional dSPE for the analysis of over forty pesticides.

As states continue to expand testing requirements for pesticides, it is vital that your laboratory is equipped with a method that allows versatility for the addition of new compounds without burdening your extraction team. There are a variety of dSPE salt and sorbent blends readily available that have been optimized for cannabis extractions. This allows for the use of a reliable extraction technique that can be adapted for the automation age. Hamilton is widely recognized throughout both clinical and forensic laboratory settings and the MPE2 platform is an excellent first system for laboratories beginning to automate/semi-automate their processes.

MPE2 Positive Pressure Extraction/Evaporation Module
MPE2 Positive Pressure Extraction/Evaporation Module

Following an initial QuEChERS extraction, additional cleanup is typically recommended for extracts that are being analyzed for pesticide content due to the low detection limits often required. dSPE provides the necessary sample clean up to obtain those thresholds, but often burdens a laboratory staff with additional time consuming preparation steps. Traditionally, dSPE salts are packed into 2 mL centrifugation tubes that require a cumbersome supernatant pipetting step followed by additional vortex, spin and transfer steps. By packing the dSPE sorbents into a well plate format, the user is able to completely automate this above described clean up ultimately saving time and adding convenience without jeopardizing any recovery data.

For most compounds, the recovery was greater than 65% for both methods of dSPE. The mean recoveries for traditional dSPE were 98.0%, 99.2% and 97.9% at pesticide concentrations of 50 ng/mL, 100 ng/mL and 200 ng/mL, respectively. For comparison, the mean recoveries at the same concentrations for well plate dSPE were 85.0%, 88.9% and 89.1%. Therefore, there was typically about a 10-11% absolute difference in recovery between the two methods, which can be corrected for by implementing the use of internal standards. When comparing the recovery differences between the two methods, there are six compounds with noticeably larger discrepancies across all three concentrations, namely: chlorpyrifos, cyprodinil, diazinon, spinetoram, spiromesifen 278 and trifloxystrobin. If these data sets are excluded, then the average absolute differences in recovery between the two methods decrease to 8.8%, 6.4% and 5.8% for concentrations of 50 ng/mL, 100 ng/mL and 200 ng/mL, respectively.rsz_1shutterstock_226135945-1

Overall, laboratories can estimate on saving 40-60 minutes per 96 samples processed using the Hamilton MPE2 in conjunction with a UCT dSPE plate. When a liquid handling robot is also available, this time saving estimation is potentially doubled. Time spent per sample, including the training of laboratory scientists, is an important factor to consider when setting up your laboratory. Automation is in an investment that can greatly reduce a laboratory’s overall labor costs in the long run.


Pesticide & Potency Analysis of Street-Grade versus Medicinal Cannabis

By Danielle Mackowsky

In states where cannabis is legalized, some analytical laboratories are tasked with identifying and quantifying pesticide content in plant material. This is a relatively new concept in the study of cannabis as most forensic laboratories that work with seized plant material are only concerned with positively identifying the sample as cannabis. Laboratories of this nature, often associated with police departments, the office of the chief medical examiner or the local department of public health are not required to identify the amount of THC and other cannabinoids in the plant. While data is abundant that compares the average THC content in today’s recreational cannabis to that commonly consumed in the 1960s and 1970s, limited scientific studies can be found that discuss the pesticide content in street-grade cannabis.

Street-grade cannabis that is ground into a fine powder

Using the QuEChERS approach, which is the industry gold-standard in food analysis for pesticides, a comparison study was carried out to analyze the pesticide and cannabinoid content in street-grade cannabis versus medicinal cannabis. For all samples, one gram of plant material was ground into a fine powder prior to hydration with methanol. The sample was then ready to be placed into an extraction tube, along with 10 mL of acetonitrile and one pouch of QuEChERS salts. After a quick vortex, all samples were then shaken for 1 minute using a SPEX Geno/Grinder prior to centrifugation.

Formation of layers following QuEChERS extraction

For pesticide analysis, a one mL aliquot of the top organic layer was then subjected to additional dispersive solid phase extraction (dSPE) clean-up. The blend of dSPE salts was selected to optimize the removal of chlorophyll and other interfering compounds from the plant material without compromising the recovery of any planar pesticides. Shaken and centrifuged under the same conditions as described above, an aliquot of the organic layer was then transferred to an auto-sampler vial and diluted with deionized water. Cannabinoid analysis required serial dilutions between 200 to 2000 times, depending on the individual sample. Both pesticide and cannabinoid separation was carried out on a UCT Selectra® Aqueous C18 HPLC column and guard column coupled to a Thermo Scientific Dionex UltiMate 3000 LC System/ TSQ VantageTM tandem MS.

Supernatant before and after additional dispersive SPE clean-up using UCT’s Chlorofiltr

Pesticide Results

Due to inconsistent regulations among states that have legalized medicinal or recreational cannabis, a wide panel of commonly encountered pesticides was selected for this application. DEET, recognized by the EPA as not evoking health concerns to the general public when applied topically, was found on all medical cannabis samples tested. An average of 28 ng/g of DEET was found on medicinal samples analyzed. Limited research as to possible side effects, if any, of having this pesticide present within volatilized medical-grade product is available. Street-grade cannabis was found to have a variety of pesticides at concentrations higher than what was observed in the medical-grade product.

Potency Results

Tetrahydrocannabinolic acid A (THCA-A) is the non-psychoactive precursor to THC. Within fresh plant material, up to 90% of available THC is found in this form. Under intense heating such as when cannabis is smoked, THCA-A is progressively decarboxylated to the psychoactive THC form. Due to possible therapeutic qualities of this compound, medical cannabis samples specifically were tested for this analyte in addition to other cannabinoids. On average, 17% of the total weight in each medical cannabis sample came from the presence of THCA-A. In both medical and recreational samples, the percentage of THC contribution ranged from 0.9-1.7.


A fast and effective method was developed for the determination of pesticide residues and cannabis potency in recreational and medical cannabis samples. Pesticide residues and cannabinoids were extracted using the UCT QuEChERS approach, followed by either additional cleanup using a blend of dSPE sorbents for pesticide analysis, or serial dilutions for cannabinoid potency testing.