Sonoma County is renowned for making wine, beer and food products.
Manufacturing here involves so much more, though, from high-tech laboratories to small machine shops supporting an array of companies. Many in the budding cannabis sector know about a Santa Rosa company that makes a relatively new machine for extracting the plant’s key compounds.
Delta Separations has built its business on an alcohol extraction process its owners say offers manufacturers greater profitability while meeting safety requirements of local regulatory agencies.
“We came early to market,” said CEO Ben Stephens of the business he owns with his father, Allen.
The challenge, Stephens said, is the three-year-old company now seems like it has gone from zero to 180 mph. Its sales are on track to double this year, and the company has partnered with another business to develop a new generation of extraction machines and related equipment.
For now, Delta’s main product is a 15-gallon stainless steel vessel that can hold alcohol at temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees Celsius.
A quick product overview of the Delta Separations CUP-15 at Copperstate Farms in the latest Canna Cribs episode.
Posted by Delta Separations on Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Once the desired compounds are extracted from up to 14 pounds of marijuana trim, the vessel’s centrifuge can spin up to 1,800 rpm to remove 97 percent of the alcohol from the plant material. The process takes 20 minutes.
The CUP 15 system costs between $70,000 and $80,000, Stephens said. Using it, a manufacturer can extract between $10,000 and $15,000 worth of cannabis oil a day, meaning the equipment can pay for itself in short order.
With recreational cannabis legal for adults in California, eight other states and starting next month in Canada, the push is on to join the green rush.
The cannabis sector includes not only products to smoke, but a variety of others that don’t involve lighting up. Many of the latter are made from cannabis oil, which is extracted from the plant and can feature calibrated doses of key chemical compounds THC and CBD.
The most widely known method for extracting the oil involves butane, which a few years back resulted in a spate of hash oil fires in homes and warehouses around the North Bay and elsewhere in California.
Another popular method uses carbon dioxide as the solvent, a process sometimes called supercritical CO2 extraction. Santa Rosa-based CannaCraft, one of the larger legal marijuana makers in the state, uses that approach in its production.
Stephens, a former environmental compliance inspector, instead based his manufacturing business on the third widely used method, alcohol extraction, which often involves food-grade ethanol. And he got a boost last November when the state released rules that ethanol would not be considerable a volatile material, as is butane or propane. That meant the related cannabis extraction method would face less regulation from both the state and local fire marshals.
“It was like a green light for people to start using alcohol,” Stephens said.
Dick Herman, president of 101 MFG, a Petaluma-based alliance of manufacturing executives, said Delta “jumped on a market opportunity” and was able to go from an idea to an actual product, plus a system to manufacture it.
“If you think about how fast they did it,” Herman said, “it was amazing.”
Delta, a company with about 45 employees, benefited from hiring fabricators and machinists who had built equipment for the county’s wineries, breweries and food producers.
The company’s workers and machines can take a 300-pound steel cylinder the size of a hat box and machine it into a shiny chasis for the centrifuge weighing less than 15 pounds.
Delta later this fall will be selling a larger extractor that can handle up to 30 pounds of plant material, as well as other equipment to evaporate any residual alcohol and to remove any waxes and other impurities from the oil. The company has partnered with MDC Vacuum Products of Hayward to help design and make those machines, which as a package could cost nearly $500,000.
Ryan Ko, co-founder and vice president at Next Leaf Solutions in Vancouver, a cannabis technology and processing company in British Columbia, said his business has bought Delta equipment and plans to do so again. He said his company eventually may compete against Delta in selling evaporation equipment, but he called the Santa Rosa business “absolutely the number one producer for ethanol extraction” for small- and medium-sized cannabis processors.
Part of Delta’s advantage with extractors is superior customer service, he said.
Brian Elliott, a former fire chief who operates a Santa Rosa consulting business on cannabis safety issues, said Delta is the only maker of an alcohol extractor he knows that has obtained certification from Underwriters Laboratories, the global independent safety consulting and certification firm. He called the systems well-engineered.
“In my opinion they’ve done it right from the beginning,” said Elliott, president of Canna Code Compliance.
Both Ko and Elliott expect big changes in cannabis processing in the coming years. Ko said the industry eventually will reach a scale in which it moves from the limits of single-batch production to a continuous flow-extraction method.
Asked which extraction methods eventually may prove dominant, Elliott said it could be none of those now in use. Many bright minds are now researching other approaches that one day may offer a breakthrough technology.
“They’ll be something brand new before you know it,” Elliott said.