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Chris English
The Practical Chemist

Accurate Detection of Residual Solvents in Cannabis Concentrates

By Chris English
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Chris English

Edibles and vape pens are rapidly becoming a sizable portion of the cannabis industry as various methods of consumption popularize beyond just smoking dried flower. These products are produced using cannabis concentrates, which come in the form of oils, waxes or shatter (figure 1). Once the cannabinoids and terpenes are removed from the plant material using solvents, the solvent is evaporated leaving behind the product. Extraction solvents are difficult to remove in the low percent range so the final product is tested to ensure leftover solvents are at safe levels. While carbon dioxide and butane are most commonly used, consumer concern over other more toxic residual solvents has led to regulation of acceptable limits. For instance, in Colorado the Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) updated the state’s acceptable limits of residual solvents on January 1st, 2017.

Headspace Analysis

Figure 1: Shatter can be melted and dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent for headspace analysis (HS). Photo Courtesy of Cal-Green Solutions.

Since the most suitable solvents are volatile, these compounds are not amenable to HPLC methods and are best suited to gas chromatography (GC) using a thick stationary phase capable of adequate retention and resolution of butanes from other target compounds. Headspace (HS) is the most common analytical technique for efficiently removing the residual solvents from the complex cannabis extract matrix. Concentrates are weighed out into a headspace vial and are dissolved in a high molecular weight solvent such as dimethylformamide (DMF) or 1,3-dimethyl-3-imidazolidinone (DMI). The sealed headspace vial is heated until a stable equilibrium between the gas phase and the liquid phase occurs inside the vial. One milliliter of gas is transferred from the vial to the gas chromatograph for analysis. Another approach is full evaporation technique (FET), which involves a small amount of sample sealed in a headspace vial creating a single-phase gas system. More work is required to validate this technique as a quantitative method.

Gas Chromatographic Detectors

The flame ionization detector (FID) is selective because it only responds to materials that ionize in an air/hydrogen flame, however, this condition covers a broad range of compounds. When an organic compound enters the flame; the large increase in ions produced is measured as a positive signal. Since the response is proportional to the number of carbon atoms introduced into the flame, an FID is considered a quantitative counter of carbon atoms burned. There are a variety of advantages to using this detector such as, ease of use, stability, and the largest linear dynamic range of the commonly available GC detectors. The FID covers a calibration of nearly 5 orders of magnitude. FIDs are inexpensive to purchase and to operate. Maintenance is generally no more complex than changing jets and ensuring proper gas flows to the detector. Because of the stability of this detector internal standards are not required and sensitivity is adequate for meeting the acceptable reporting limits. However, FID is unable to confirm compounds and identification is only based on retention time. Early eluting analytes have a higher probability of interferences from matrix (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Resolution of early eluting compounds by headspace – flame ionization detection (HS-FID). Chromatogram Courtesy of Trace Analytics.

Mass Spectrometry (MS) provides unique spectral information for accurately identifying components eluting from the capillary column. As a compound exits the column it collides with high-energy electrons destabilizing the valence shell electrons of the analyte and it is broken into structurally significant charged fragments. These fragments are separated by their mass-to-charge ratios in the analyzer to produce a spectral pattern unique to the compound. To confirm the identity of the compound the spectral fingerprint is matched to a library of known spectra. Using the spectral patterns the appropriate masses for quantification can be chosen. Compounds with higher molecular weight fragments are easier to detect and identify for instance benzene (m/z 78), toluene (m/z 91) and the xylenes (m/z 106), whereas low mass fragments such as propane (m/z 29), methanol (m/z 31) and butane (m/z 43) are more difficult and may elute with matrix that matches these ions. Several disadvantages of mass spectrometers are the cost of equipment, cost to operate and complexity. In addition, these detectors are less stable and require an internal standard and have a limited dynamic range, which can lead to compound saturation.

Regardless of your method of detection, optimized HS and GC conditions are essential to properly resolve your target analytes and achieve the required detection limits. While MS may differentiate overlapping peaks the chances of interference of low molecular weight fragments necessitates resolution of target analytes chromatographically. FID requires excellent resolution for accurate identification and quantification.

The Practical Chemist

Appropriate Instrumentation for the Chemical Analysis of Cannabis and Derivative Products: Part 1

By Rebecca Stevens
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Election Day 2016 resulted in historic gains for state level cannabis prohibition reform. Voters in California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada chose to legalize adult use of Cannabis sp. and its extracts while even traditionally conservative states like Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota enacted policy allowing for medical use. More than half of the United States now allows for some form of legal cannabis use, highlighting the rapidly growing need for high quality analytical testing.

For the uninitiated, analytical instrumentation can be a confusing mix of abbreviations and hyphenation that provides little obvious information about an instrument’s capability, advantages and disadvantages. In this series of articles, my colleagues and I at Restek will break down and explain in practical terms what instruments are appropriate for a particular analysis and what to consider when choosing an instrumental technique.

Potency Analysis

Potency analysis refers to the quantitation of the major cannabinoids present in Cannabis sp. These compounds are known to provide the physiological effects of cannabis and their levels can vary dramatically based on cultivation practices, product storage conditions and extraction practices.

The primary technique is high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) coupled to ultraviolet absorbance (UV) detection. Gas chromatography (GC) coupled to a flame ionization detector (FID) or mass spectrometry (MS) can provide potency information but suffers from issues that preclude its use for comprehensive analysis.

Pesticide Residue Analysis

Pesticide residue analysis is, by a wide margin, the most technically challenging testing that we will discuss here. Trace levels of pesticides incurred during cultivation can be transferred to the consumer both on dried plant material and in extracts prepared from the contaminated material. These compounds can be acutely toxic and are generally regulated at part per billion parts-per-billion levels (PPB).

Depending on the desired target pesticides and detection limits, HPLC and/or GC coupled with tandem mass spectrometry (MS/MS) or high resolution accurate mass spectrometry (HRAM) is strongly recommended. Tandem and HRAM mass spectrometry instrumentation is expensive, but in this case it is crucial and will save untold frustration during method development.

Residual Solvents Analysis

When extracts are produced from plant material using organic solvents such as butane, alcohols or supercritical carbon dioxide there is a potential for the solvent and any other contaminants present in it to become trapped in the extract. The goal of residual solvent analysis is to detect and quantify solvents that may remain in the finished extract.

Residual solvent analysis is best accomplished using GC coupled to a headspace sample introduction system (HS-GC) along with FID or MS detection. Solid phase microextraction (SPME) of the sample headspace with direct introduction to the GC is another option.

Terpene Profile Analysis

While terpene profiles are not a safety issue, they provide much of the smell and taste experience of cannabis and are postulated to synergize with the physiologically active components. Breeders of Cannabis sp. are often interested in producing strains with specific terpene profiles through selective breeding techniques.

Both GC and HPLC can be employed successfully for terpenes analysis. Mass spectrometry is suitable for detection as well as GC-FID and HPLC-UV.

Heavy Metals Analysis

Metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and mercury can be present in cannabis plant material due to uptake from the soil, fertilizers or hydroponic media by a growing plant. Rapidly growing plants like Cannabis sp. are particularly efficient at extracting and accumulating metals from their environment.

Several different types of instrumentation can be used for metals analysis, but the dominant technology is inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS). Other approaches can also be used including ICP coupled with optical emission spectroscopy (ICP-OES).

Rebecca is an Applications Scientist at Restek Corporation and is eager to field any questions or comments on cannabis analysis, she can be reached by e-mail, rebecca.stevens@restek.com or by phone at 814-353-1300 (ext. 2154)

An inductively coupled plasma torch used in MS reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
An inductively coupled plasma torch used in Optical Emission Spectroscopy (OES) reaches local temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. Image by W. Blanchard, Wikimedia
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Quality From Canada

Near Infrared, GC and HPLC Applications in Cannabis Testing

By Tegan Adams, Michael Bertone
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When a cannabis sample is submitted to a lab for testing there is a four-step process that occurs before it is tested in the instrumentation on site:

  1. It is ground at a low temperature into a fine powder;
  2. A solution is added to the ground powder;
  3. An extraction is repeated 6 times to ensure all cannabinoids are transferred into a common solution to be used in testing instrumentation.
  4. Once the cannabinoid solution is extracted from the plant matter, it is analyzed using High Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC). HPLC is the key piece of instrumentation in cannabis potency testing procedures.

While there are many ways to test cannabis potency, HPLC is the most widely accepted and recognized testing instrumentation. Other instrument techniques include gas chromatography (GC) and thin layer chromatography (TLC). HPLC is preferred over GC because it does not apply heat in the testing process and cannabinoids can then be measured in their naturally occurring forms. Using a GC, heat is applied as part of the testing process and cannabinoids such as THCA or CBDA can change form, depending on the level of heat applied. CBDA and THCA have been observed to change form at as low as 40-50C. GC uses anywhere between 150-200C for its processes, and if using a GC, a change of compound form can occur. Using HPLC free of any high-heat environments, acidic (CBDA & THCA) and neutral cannabinoids (CBD, THC, CBG, CBN and others) can be differentiated in a sample for quantification purposes.

Near Infrared

Near infrared (NIR) has been used with cannabis for rapid identification of active pharmaceutical ingredients by measuring how much light different substances reflect. Cannabis is typically composed of 5-30% cannabinoids (mainly THC and CBD) and 5-15% water. Cannabinoid content can vary by over 5% (e.g. 13-18%) on a single plant, and even more if grown indoors. Multiple NIR measurements can be cost effective for R&D purposes. NIR does not use solvents and has a speed advantage of at least 50 times over traditional methods.

The main downfall of NIR techniques is that they are generally less accurate than HPLC or GC for potency analyses. NIR can be programmed to detect different compounds. To obtain accuracy in its detection methods, samples must be tested by HPLC on ongoing basis. 100 samples or more will provide enough information to improve an NIR software’s accuracy if it is programmed by the manufacturer or user using chemometrics. Chemometrics sorts through the often complex and broad overlapping NIR absorption.

Bands from the chemical, physical, and structural properties of all species present in a sample that influences the measured spectra. Any variation however of a strain tested or water quantity observed can affect the received results. Consistency is the key to obtaining precision with NIR equipment programming. The downfall of the NIR technique is that it must constantly be compared to HPLC data to ensure accuracy.

At Eurofins Experchem , our company works with bothHPLC and NIR equipment simultaneously for different cannabis testing purposes. Running both equipment simultaneously means we are able to continually monitor the accuracy of our NIR equipment as compared to our HPLC. If a company is using NIR alone however, it can be more difficult to maintain the equipment’s accuracy without on-going monitoring.

What about Terpenes?

Terpenes are the primary aromatic constituents of cannabis resin and essential oils. Terpene compounds vary in type and concentration among different genetic lineages of cannabis and have been shown to modulate and modify the therapeutic and psychoactive effects of cannabinoids. Terpenes can be analyzed using different methods including separation by GC or HPLC and identification by Mass Spectrometry. The high-heat environment for GC analysis can again cause problems in accuracy and interpretation of results for terpenes; high-heat environments can degrade terpenes and make them difficult to find in accurate form. We find HPLC is the best instrument to test for terpenes and can now test for six of the key terpene profiles including a-Pinene, Caryophyllene, Limonene, Myrcene, B-Pinene and Terpineol.

Quality Systems

Quality systems between different labs are never one and the same. Some labs are testing cannabis under good manufacturing practices (GMP), others follow ISO accreditation and some labs have no accreditation at all.

From a quality systems’ perspective some labs have zero or only one quality system employee(s). In a GMP lab, to meet the requirements of Health Canada and the FDA, our operations are staffed in a 1:4 quality assurance to analyst ratio. GMP labs have stringent quality standards that set them apart from other labs testing cannabis. Quality standards we work with include, but are not limited to: monthly internal blind audits, extensive GMP training, yearly exams and ongoing tests demonstrating competencies.

Maintaining and adhering to strict quality standards necessary for a Drug Establishment License for pharmaceutical testing ensures accuracy of results in cannabis testing otherwise difficult to find in the testing marketplace.

Important things to know about testing

  1. HPLC is the most recommended instrument used for product release in a regulated environment.
  2. NIR is the best instrument to use for monitoring growth and curing processes for R&D purposes, only if validated with an HPLC on an ongoing basis.
  3. Quality Systems between labs are different. Regardless of instrumentation used, if quality systems are not in place and maintained, integrity of results may be compromised.
  4. GMPs comprise 25% of our labour costs to our quality department. Quality systems necessary for a GMP environment include internal audits, out of specification investigations, qualification and maintenance of instruments, systems controls and stringent data integrity standards.
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The Nerd Perspective

‘Instant’ Cannabis Potency Testing: Different Approaches from Different Manufacturers

By Amanda Rigdon
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This is the first piece of a regular column that CIJ has been so kind to allow me to write for their publication. Some readers might recognize my name from The Practical Chemist column in this publication. Since the inception of that column, I’ve finally taken the plunge into the cannabis industry as chief technical officer of Emerald Scientific. Unlike The Practical Chemist, I will not spend the entire first article introducing the column. The concept is simple: while I find the textbook-esque content of The Practical Chemist scintillating, I have a feeling that the content is a little too heavy to spring on someone who is looking for engaging articles over their precious coffee break. Instead, The Nerd Perspective will consist of less-technical writing focusing on my experience and insights for the cannabis industry as a whole. But don’t worry – I’m sure I will not be able to refrain from technical jargon altogether.

To kick off the column, I want to talk about instrumentation for ‘instant’ cannabis potency testing. At this point, it’s common knowledge in the cannabis analytics industry that the most accurate way to test cannabis potency is through extraction then analysis by HPLC-UV. I agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, but HPLC analyses have one drawback: they can be either inexpensive or fast – not both. There are some instruments entering the market now that– while not as directly quantitative as HPLC-UV – promise to solve the inexpensive/fast conundrum. During my most recent trip to California, I was able to spend some quality time with two well-known instrument manufacturers: SRI Instruments and PerkinElmer, both of whom manufacture instruments that perform fast, inexpensive cannabis potency analyses. From my previous home at the heights of The Ivory Tower of Chromatography: Home of the Application Chemists, SRI and PE couldn’t be more different. But as seen through the eyes of a company who deals with a wide range of customers and analytical needs, it turns out that SRI and PE are much the same – not only in their open and honest support of the cannabis industry, but also in terms of their love of all things technical.

My first stop was SRI Instruments. They are a relatively small company located in an unassuming building in Torrance, CA. Only a few people work in that location, and I spent my time with Hugh Goldsmith (chief executive officer) and Greg Benedict (tech service guru). I have worked with these guys for a few years now, and since the beginning, I have lovingly referred to them as the MacGyvers of chromatography. Anyone familiar with SRI GCs knows that what they lack in aesthetics, they make up for in practicality – these instruments truly reflect Hugh and Greg’s character (that’s meant as a compliment).

SRI specializes in relatively inexpensive portable and semi-portable instruments that are easy to set up, easy to operate, and most importantly – engineered for a purpose. It’s actually really hard to manufacture an instrument that meets all three of these criteria, and the folks at SRI accomplish this with their passionate and unique approach to problem solving. What I love about these guys is that for them, nothing is impossible. Here’s an example: the price of the portable GC-FID instruments SRI builds is inflated because the instruments require separate – and pricey – hydrogen generators. That’s a big problem – hydrogen generators are all pretty much the same, and none of them are cheap. This didn’t faze SRI: they just decided to design their own super small on-board hydrogen generator capable of supplying hydrogen to a simple GC macgyversystem for six hours with just 20mL of distilled water from the grocery store! I’m not kidding – I saw it in action on their new Model 420 GC (more on that in some future pieces). Was the final product pretty? Not in the least. Did it work? Absolutely. This kind of MacGyver-esque problem solving can only be done successfully with a deep understanding of the core principles behind the problem. What’s more, in order to engineer instruments like these, SRI has to have mastery over the core principles of not only chromatographic separation, but also of software development, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering – just to name a few. These quirky, unassuming guys are smart. SRI is a company that’s been unapologetically true to themselves for decades; they’ll never be a contender for beauty queen, but they get the job done.

On the surface, PerkinElmer (PE) contrasts with SRI in almost every way possible. With revenue measured in billions of dollars and employees numbering in the thousands, PE is a behemoth that plays not only in the analytical chemistry industry but also in clinical diagnostics and other large industries. Where SRI instruments have a characteristic look of familiar homeliness, PE instruments are sleek and sexy. However, PerkinElmer and SRI are more alike than it would seem; just like the no-frills SRI, the hyper-technical PE instruments are engineered for a purpose by teams of very smart, passionate people.

DoogieWith its modest price tag and manual sample introduction, the SRI Model 420 is engineered for lower throughput users to be a fast, simple, and inexpensive approach to semi-quantitative process control. The purpose of the instruments manufactured by PE is to produce the highest-quality quantitative results as quickly as possible for high-throughput labs. PE instruments are built using the best technology available in order to eke out every last ounce of quantitative accuracy and throughput possible. Fancy technology is rarely inexpensive, and neither is rigorous product development that can last years in some cases. In a way, PE is Doogie Howser to SRI’s MacGyver. Like MacGyver, Doogie is super smart, and his setting is a sterile hospital rather than a warzone.

I had a wonderful conversation with Tim Ruppel, PE’s headspace-GC specialist, on the sample introduction technology incorporated into the TurboMatrix Headspace Sampler, where I also learned that the basic technology for all PerkinElmer headspace-GC instruments was designed by the men who wrote The Book on headspace gas chromatography: Bruno Kolb and Leslie Ettre**. Later, I was able to get a much-needed lesson on FT-IR and the Spectrum Two IR Spectrometer from Brian Smith, PE’s spectroscopy expert, who actually wrote the book on quantitative spectroscopy***. Tim and Brian’s excitement over their technology mirrored that of Hugh and Greg. It turns out that SRI and PerkinElmer are more alike than I thought.

These two instrument manufacturers have addressed the fast/inexpensive conundrum of cannabis potency testing in two different ways: SRI’s instrument is extremely inexpensive, easy to operate, and will provide semi-quantitative values for THC, CBD, and CBN in just a few minutes; PE’s instrument is more expensive up front, but provides quantitative (though not directly quantitative) values for all of the major cannabinoids almost instantly, and requires almost no maintenance or consumables. These two instruments were designed for specific uses: one for inexpensive, easy use, and the other for more comprehensive results with a higher initial investment. The question consumers have to ask themselves is “Who do I need to solve my problem?” For some, the answer will be MacGyver, and for others, Doogie Howser will provide the solution – after all, both are heroes.


** B. Kolb, L. Ettre, Static Headspace-Gas Chromatography: Theory and Practice, John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, NJ, 2006.

*** Brian C. Smith, Quantitative Spectroscopy: Theory and Practice, Elsevier, Boston, MA, 2002.

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Emerald Scientific Names Industry Veteran Amanda Rigdon Chief Technology Officer

By Aaron G. Biros
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Emerald Scientific, a supplier of reagents, supplies, equipment and services to cannabis testing and extraction facilities, recently named Amanda Rigdon as the company’s chief technology officer. Rigdon previously worked at Restek Corporation, a manufacturer of chromatography supplies, as an applications chemist and a member of their gas chromatography columns product marketing team.

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Amanda Rigdon, chief technology officer at Emerald Scientific

Before working in the cannabis space, Rigdon began her career in the pharmaceutical and clinical/forensics industries. She spent seven years in Restek’s applications lab where she was responsible for the development and application of chromatography products for the pharmaceutical and clinical/forensics arenas. In recent years, she has been an outspoken advocate in the science of cannabis while with Restek.

As a strong proponent for scientific progress in cannabis, she brings extensive technical expertise and marketing experience related to cannabis testing and research. Presenting at numerous cannabis science conferences and seminars, she regularly provides education on analytical methods and best practices in the lab.emerald test retail

As a contributing author to CannabisIndustryJournal.com and member of the editorial advisory board, she writes a column addressing challenges in the lab and providing technical advice. “I’m thrilled to be a part of the Emerald Scientific team and a member of the cannabis community as a whole,” says Rigdon. “I’ve known the folks at Emerald [Scientific] for years; they’re among the best in the business, and they’ve been supporting the cannabis community since the early days of cannabis analytics.” Rigdon’s mantra in the cannabis testing space has long been to support sound science in the interest of protecting patient and consumer health.

“I’m really looking forward to using my technical skills in conjunction with Emerald’s position and reach in the market to make work easier for cannabis labs through education, applications and new products,” adds Rigdon. Emerald Scientific is widely known in the cannabis testing community for The Emerald Test, an inter- laboratory comparison proficiency test, organized twice per year. It also hosts The Emerald Conference, an annual scientific meeting for scientists, policy makers, producers, and other key members of the cannabis industry. ˇThe Emerald Conference is the first scientifically focused conference for the cannabis industry, now coming up on its third annual conference in February 2017.rsz_emerald-scientific_letterhead-1