New cannabis-inspired fragrance extraction technology

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Cross-industry innovation has often proven itself as one of the biggest growth accelerators, for sometimes it takes an outsider perspective to create inside change. Case in point: Vapor Distilled, created by couple Russell Thomas and Kasia Szewczyk, with technology created in their own kitchen in Boulder, Colorado. Thomas started his career in clean tech, working on fuel-saving technologies, while Szewczyk previously held senior marketing positions and acted as Vice President of Donor Relations at the I Have a Dream Foundation.

Watching the rise of the legal cannabis industry and the vast array of extraction methods being used within it, Thomas decided to create the device that was to become the starship of LifeTonic enterprises—in essence, a giant vaporizer. After testing it on cannabis, they noticed two to four times higher levels of terpenes (the compounds responsible for its smell). The duo soon saw potential for other applications and began experimenting with extracting fragrance compounds from over 50 tons of material including hops, tonka bean, sandalwood, orris root, and coriander seeds.

The company’s Evaporative Extraction method accelerates the natural evaporation process of fragrant raw materials through hot air, drawing the scent compounds out of the finely ground substance to aid extraction, which are then captured and rendered into essential oil form. With Vapor Distilled’s technology, the yield from the same amount of raw material can be 1.5 to 4 times higher. Within two seconds, the flash extraction creates full-spectrum oil extracts, while other technologies require an hour or more. It is less energy intensive, but produces more aromatic oils due to not destroying volatile terpenes through strong chemicals or excessive heat. This method uses less than 1/10th of the energy required compared to steam distillation, a fourth or fifth of the energy for solvent extraction. “It’s a more efficient process with less power consumption. You're going to be able to produce an extract with lower costs and if you combine that with also having something that smells better, that's the ideal combo,” Thomas adds.

“There's no other process of harnessing that natural scent evaporation and turning that into an extract, we're the first company to do that."


It also has many merits for harvesting scent from raw materials that were too sensitive for traditional processes such as solvent extraction or vapor distillation. Alternative methods used in the industry thus far included headspace technology, whereby the material is enclosed in a glass covering, with the odor compounds then being analyzed through gas chromatography and mass spectrometry instruments, enabling a perfumer to recreate the scent in a lab setting. However, the botanical life on which this method could be used is limited. Supercritical CO2 extraction uses CO2 that is in the interim state between a liquid and gas to extract the oils from the raw material without the use of high temperatures or harsh handling of the ingredient. It is, however, more expensive than other means.

Even if materials are able to be processed through these methods, there is a reduction in complexity, although at the hands of a skilled perfumer, notes can be combined to complete the picture. “We immediately noticed that we were getting a much more complex, sweeter, floral extract out of these compounds,” Thomas explains. “There's no other process of harnessing that natural scent evaporation and turning that into an extract, we're the first company to do that. You get a much more true representation of the original plant using that method.”

The company is currently in discussion with fragrance manufacturers on licensing deals, as well as hops companies, since the technology has far-reaching application for the flavors industry. Vapor Distilled is also looking into more challenging extracts such as chocolate or any materials with greasy and oily compounds, by taking additional steps to keep the material in the correct extraction state of “light and fluffy.”

The timing of this invention is rather apt, in light of the fragrance industry’s recent discussions around sustainability, from decolonizing material sourcing to lessening its environmental footprint. Firmenich committed to carbon neutrality by 2025 and renewable fragrances by 2030. Coty partnered with LanzaTech on sustainable ethanol to reduce its carbon impact, while fragrances like Etat Libre d’Orange’s I Am Trash are utilizing upcycled ingredients. Natural raw materials have a higher environmental impact than their synthetic counterparts, but amidst the rise of “clean” fragrance, a certain subset of consumers have pushed for all-natural fragrances. A majority of perfumers will utilize a mix of naturals and synthetics for their creations. Vapor Distilled’s technology could be a step forward in lessening this environmental impact and production costs for both parties.

Thomas is currently in conversations with large fragrance manufacturers about licensing their technology, as well as conducting paid research for these companies. His ultimate goal with the company is to offer superior products at lower costs, while paying homage to nature in all its glorious complexity. “I hope to enable some of the best perfume companies out there to make better products using it,” he says. With the imminent adoption of Vapor Distilled’s technology, the olfactory possibilities are endless.

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