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How Are Terpenes Made?

For skimmers, here are your key takeaways summarized:

  • Terpenes are derived from natural ingredients
  • There are many different ways to extract terpenes
  • Many companies use lower quality extraction processes due to the cost of equipment, training, and other relevant factors
  • Abstrax prides itself on the purity and grade of our terpenes relative to our competitors
  • When mixing terpenes with distillates and tinctures, the most important factors are the accuracy of measurement, environmental cleanliness, proper storage, and unit standardization - don’t mix grams with milliliters
  • See infographic for mixing ratios based on your end product (tinctures, topical, shatter, wax, drinks etc.)

Let's start with some terpene basics for 2020

When it comes to terpenes, mother nature does most of the work. A massive variety of flora (plants), fauna (animals), and insects naturally make terpenes according to their historic, genetic programming. Each of these biological terpenes has distinct, beautiful characteristics - among them a particular scent. However, their true majesty appears when the hundreds of individual terpenes come together to act in concert - not dissimilar to solitary instruments joining to form a symphony. As such, these organic chemicals are wholly natural aromas that infuse a beautiful diversity into the verdant environments they’re concentrated in. One great example  is any flower shop. That powerful floral smell is pure terpene goodness.

How are terpenes made? | What are terpenes made of?

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And it is goodness. There are so many great aspects to terpenes aside from their smell/taste. They’re super good for you (in reasonable doses), appearing in
health remedies, supplements, food additives, perfumes, and even some speculation regarding terpenes eventually replacing or reducing human dependence on crude oil. Needless to say, humans recognized how awesome these compounds were many years ago. Then, it was only a matter of time until we figured out different ways of collecting those terpenes into essential oils - purified terpene oil.  

How are Terpenes Extracted?

Say the goal here is extracting an amount of the terpene pinene; one of the most common terpenes found in nature. It’s invigorating, fresh, and directly linked to improvements in both mental and physical health

Terpene Effects | Terpene Ingredients | Abstrax Tech

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While in a suitable forest, collect some pinene-rich samples. These can be needles, pine tree resin, or other pinene-saturated plants like camphorweed, sagebrush, etc. From here, this unrefined matter has to have all the plant components separated out - parts like the fats, chlorophyll, etc. This is all accomplished through distillation; heating stuff up until the material separates. Then, the desired parts can be collected. 

The two most common methods of removing terpenes from their original host matter are steam distillation and hydrodistillation - explored below. 

Terpene Steam Distillation 

Here, the pinene-rich material gathered in the paragraph above would be suspended above boiling water in an open, accessible container. The hot steam rises, passing through the plant matter. As this occurs, the monoterpenes are light enough to be carried away on that aerial stream. 

Riding watery heat waves, the terpene-mist moves along from the original boiling location until it comes into contact with a condenser: a cooling device that converts the steam back into a liquid state. Now, oil and water don’t mix. So, when that final liquid is collected, the terpenes (which are oils) float to the surface. 

Well, most of them. There’s a water-soluble component called hydrosol that doesn’t separate cleanly. This causes the final product to appear as a bottom layer of milky water (hydrosol) with the purified oil on top (terpenes).

Terpene Hydrodistillation 

Great news, no long reading for the hydrodistillation part. While there is a heavily scientific, overly complicated way of describing the process… essentially you just put the terpene-heavy plant material directly in boiling water. Let it sit for a while, Wait until everything cools down, then scoop out, suck up, or otherwise collect that oily zone floating along the surface.

Unfortunately, there’s a massive problem with both of these two methods: the heat. Water only boils and converts to steam at temperatures of 100C (212F) or above. At high temperatures like these, many of the volatile (sensitive), terpenes will be damaged, altered, or even lost entirely. If only there was some way to lower boiling points while keeping the heat low. 

Terpene Molecular Distillation 

Generally speaking, everyone on Earth exists under a fairly close spread of standard deviations relative to standard atmospheric pressure - measured in pascals: pressure units. Atmospheric pressure  is the force exerted by the air around and above the world. Now, while air itself actually adds up to a massive weight, no one feels the force because our bodies contain the same air pressure within them - along with a degree of flexibility to withstand pressure fluctuations. 

But why is atmospheric pressure important? Because if affects chemical reactions. The answer to the problem of decay in the terpene extraction methods mentioned above is the application of vacuum - the lessening of atmospheric pressure. Specialized equipment, ovens, stills, etc., have the ability to isolate samples under vacuum. Therein, the space has such low pressure that the particles surrounding a given sample no longer interact with it. When material is heated under vacuum (measured in pascal - pressure units), boiling points are lowered. Under these parameters, terpenes can now be removed from plant components without the damage potential of high temperature.

Here at Abstrax, we use molecular distillation to standardize our naturally derived terpenes from variables in isolate purity due to climate changes, harvest times, root-stock health, logistical fluctuations, and much more.

The paragraph above is somewhat heady, so let’s break it down simply. In molecular distillation, desired components are extracted from raw materials using a molecular still. This device takes raw materials and pumps out the atmospheric pressure from the contained area. The removal of atmospheric pressure is sometimes referred to as vacuum. When a sample is under vacuum, its boiling point is lowered - making it possible to remove terpenes with harming them. Unfortunately, this is more expensive than simple refining techniques like hydrodistillation and steam distillation - making it less popular.


How Companies Fool Customers: Density, Volume, and Mass

Terpenes are liquids (oils). As fluids, they are often sold in volume measurements like milliliter (mL), liter (L), ounce (oz), gallon (gal), etc. This means that mathematical equations are required to convert these volumetric units into mass units (like grams (g), kilograms (kg), etc.) when they are to be mixed with other substances like distillates, tinctures, oils, or other substances. 

Now, density is expressed as (g/mL). This calculation takes into account the amount of material (mass - specified in grams) within a substance and divides it by the space taken up by that substance (volume - specified in milliliters). Another way to describe density is how compact something is - or how much matter is contained in a given space. One simple example is the density of human muscle is much denser (and therefore heavier) than human fat. 

As accuracy is paramount in any terpene formulation or mixture, density absolutely must be factored in. Unfortunately, many people use a 1 to 1 conversion rate between milliliters and grams. While this formula works perfectly for calculating the density of water (1.000 g/mL), it doesn’t convert evenly for terpenes (0.865 g/ml). Imagine two containers equally full of liquid. However, one contains water while the other holds terpenes. The terpene filled container will weigh less - even though both have been filled to equivalent levels. From this example it’s easily understood that terpenes are less dense than water.

For a full understanding of density, knowledge of both mass and volume are necessary. Mass isn’t the same as weight, even though they are closely related. Measured in grams, mass is the amount of matter a substance contains. Weight, on the other hand, is a measurement of the gravitational force exerted on a particular object. One easy way to conceptualize this is the example of astronauts. On different planets, in space, etc., gravity is experienced differently than on Earth. So, the overall weight of the astronaut will change based on the gravitational forces they are exposed to. However, the actual mass of the body won’t change. Say, if that individual were on the moon (an area of lower gravity than earth’s), their weight would decrease while the mass would remain the same. 

Volume is simply the amount of space something takes up. It can be found by filling regulated containers to a certain extent, or by submerging an object in a water tank and measuring the displacement. This is an easy explanation why metal ships can float: the amount of water a ship displaces is greater than the weight of the ship - resulting in the ship floating. 

The thing is, volume is profoundly impacted by temperature. Every molecule is always in motion, unless you reach absolute zero (-273.15 celsius/ -459.67 fahrenheit). These natural vibrations increase as the temperature increases (or decreases), as the temperature drops. In the container example above, the liquid within a container can expand or contract under different conditions. An initial measurement of 1000mL may increase to 1100 mL in a hotter climate or decrease to 900 mL somewhere cold. So, volume isn’t particularly stable.

For example, a full gallon contains 3785 mL. Quick, improper math results in the converter thinking a gallon of terpenes has 3785 grams. It does not. 3785 mL of terpenes equals only 3274 grams. That’s a loss of 511 grams. 

Many companies sell terpenes in milliliters because it makes it seem like the customer is getting a better deal. Without considering density, it’s easy to make a mistake in determining pricing and quantity. Abstrax simplifies the process by labeling our products in grams. 


How to Mix Terpenes with Distillates

Firstly, be VERY CAREFUL when measuring out amounts for use in terpene mixing. They are super high quality and very concentrated; strong. Well, at least the ones we sell at Abstrax are.  

How to mix terpenes

So, in this sense, a distillate is a concentrated gathering of a substance (often cannabinoids) that could be benefitted by the inclusion of terpenes. For simplicity, let’s pose two primary products for combination: the distillate and the terpenes. Going back to the first paragraph of this section, the most important aspect of this process is proper measurement. As even a small discrepancy could result in total loss, please use extreme care. This is no different from a cooking recipe; imagine putting way too much salt in a soup - bummer. Make sure that the units of measurement are also identical. As explained in detail above, please do not mix fluid ounces with grams, etc. 

To assist in this critically sensitive process, clean, standardized laboratory equipment should be used. Fortunately, graduated cylinders, burets, and pipettes are all easily available. These specialized, easily readable instruments are very necessary when dealing with such powerful substances.

So, while the math may be a bit easier for those using Abstrax terpenes relative to those from other distributors, an easy ratio to keep in mind for terpene inclusion is that 1 milliliter roughly equals 0.83 grams in the realm of terpenes. If the terpenes are measured in milliliters, those milliliters must be converted to grams before being included in the final mixture. 

See infographic below for mixing ratio recommendations. Choose your end product, start with the recommended percentage and work your way up from there (slowly) to get to the desired flavor and effect. As mentioned, terpenes are highly concentrated so a tiny bit makes a huge difference, less is more. 

How to mix terpenes | Terpene Mixing Guide

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How to Use Terpenes In Tinctures?

Identical to the distillate section above, the most important thing here is the accuracy of measurement. As seen in the infographic above, we recommend starting with 0.5%, see how it tastes and how the effects (energizing, calming etc.) feel and adjust from there.

Example: If you’re end product is a 30ml CBD tincture, add 0.15ml of terpene blend to it to start with and adjust from there to optimize flavor and effect.

A tincture is usually an extract from a plant source using alcohol. As such, there should already be a significant terpene content within a tincture - even before additional terpenes are added. However, if someone wants to boost the therapeutic properties of a tincture by including additional terpenes, this is easily doable. Simply define the desired weights of tincture, terpene(s), and final product. After the proper amounts have been combined, mix evenly in a sterile environment and voila!

As a final note, please use caution when measuring out terpene ratios. Standardize your measurement system, and things become much easier. Some options propose measuring in drops. This is fine with standardized equipment. However, different tools (like pipette sizes) may produce different sized drops - or release terpenes more quickly than other tools. A drop is normally calculated at 0.05 milliliters (or 20 drops per milliliter). It’s worth the time to measure just how effective a given tool is at producing that perfect 0.05 ml drop. Given the amount of effort that goes into producing a perfect terpene-infused product, it’s well worth the effort to take a few extra precautions. The general rule is that 1 milliliter roughly equates to 0.83 grams - but making sure is always a good idea. Once the units of measurement are identical, it’s just a matter of steady hands and properly calibrated scales.

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