Cannabis Chromatography: Cannabis Testing Using Liquid Chromatography

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What’s the Quality of your Cannabis Product?

The extraction of botanical compounds such as cannabis is as much an art as it is a science. However, there are tried and true methods to continually improve our techniques—and ultimately—our end product. In fact, the success or failure of your extraction business depends the quality of your output. And while the extraction of cannabis is only just starting to emerge out of from under the thumb of the state authorities around the world, the analytical platforms used in the gathering of data on the compounds within it have been in use for decades.

How does High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) work?

Rudimentary Liquid Chromatography has been in use since the 1960s to separate and detect the difference components of a mixture through the manipulation of a property known as elution (the process of extracting one material from another by washing with a solvent).

In a modern High Pressure Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) procedure, your analyte (a substance whose chemical constituents are being identified and measured) is carried down a column at pressure while dissolved in a solution referred to as the mobile phase. The different components interact slightly differently as the pass across the solid components of the column known as the stationary phase and are sorted accordingly.

The end of the column features a photo-diode reader that gathers spectral data that a chemist can interpret to determine how one sample compares to a bassline sample. Most analytical platforms operate in a similar way and vary in sensitivity and types of compounds they specialize in detecting.

How does HPLC Help my Cannabis Extraction Facility?

When sourcing material to be processed through a cannabis refinement lab, it is crucial to be aware of the quality of the material because it directly correlates to the quality of the output or end product.

The competitive advantage of HPLC testing before purchasing sourced biomass is obvious. Using the technology to perform a micro-extraction on questionable biomass or crude oil, and then analyzing the results against an ideal standard can provide a better picture of what cannabinoids are present in the sample—and in what quantity—before committing to purchase large quantities.

Such knowledge could make all the difference in the decision to buy suspect crude oil or biomass from a source that could leave you with great buyer’s remorse. This is doubly true for the final products a lab produces. Certificates of Analysis (COAs) from accredited labs are expensive, and a lab having the capability to test its own samples beforehand for quality assurance is a massive savings in and of itself.

Worthy of note is also the fact that checking the ratio of decarboxylated cannabinoid forms vs. their acidic variants can reveal the age of the biomass. The carboxyl groups present on the cannabinoids in their most fresh-off-the-plant form will degrade over time as they are exposed to any number of elements including heat, UV, and atmospheric oxygen.

Ultimately, HPLC is also a vital tool in monitoring extraction efficiencies as lab averages. A pre- and post-extraction analysis of the biomass being processed can reveal the percentage of botanical compound removal—information that provides crucial data for the optimization of a manufacturing operation, helps a lab get the most out of their material, and ultimately affects bottom line results. The importance of this efficiency is paramount because it can raise your cannabis extraction and processing facility head and shoulders above the competition in a volatile industry that fluctuates regularly.

While an HPLC is certainly the most widely applicable instrument one might find uses for in cannabis analytics, there are other platforms that have extraordinary applications that are certainly worth mentioning.

Gas Chromatography for Cannabis Analysis and Quality Assurance

Gas Chromatography is a cost-effective approach to potency analysis should the concern of the user be focused on the general non-acidic forms of cannabinoids present in cannabis. While less versatile than an HPLC, it is easier to service, and comes in at a much lower capital cost. Pesticides are the bane of the cannabis industry at large and testing for these compounds is a mainstay in any Quality Assurance (QA) testing. As these compounds are dangerous even in the smallest of concentrations, there is but one analytical platform that can be used to detect within that range. An inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer atomizes a sample and collects data on the quantity of polyatomic ions to be interpreted for detection limits of up to 1 parts per billion.

It is certain that all of this instrumentation will soon become commonplace at any manufacturing facility. It’s only a matter of time before the industry catches up to the pharmaceutical industry in its quality assurance practices. Science has always had a place in cannabis and embracing it will only enable those in the business to better their craft and grow alongside the industry.

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