When Vitalis Extraction Technology set out to design an improved pump system for use in CO2 extraction, the Canadian company had two goals:
- Ensure the technology addressed extractors’ immediate equipment needs, including better reliability and flow rates.
- Future-proof the pump to anticipate health and safety regulations in Canada and the United States, as well as to meet stringent regulations already in place in Europe.
To accomplish this, the company spoke extensively with cannabis extractors across North America. In addition, it turned to engineers in the highly regulated oil and gas industry to ensure its CO2 pump would meet tough standards and regulations—both today and in the future.
“We never wanted to sell or represent a piece of equipment that could later become obsolete,” Vitalis chairman and co-founder Joel Sherlock said.
Vitalis wanted its CO2 pump to meet extractors’ specific needs, so before the Kelowna, British Columbia-based company’s launch in 2016, it conducted two years of research. Company executives spoke with cannabis extractors who wanted improvements to existing pump technology, including upgrades to reliability, flow rates, separation systems and scalability.
Given the evolving cannabis regulatory landscape in North America and Europe, Vitalis also designed its pump system to qualify for advanced equipment safety certifications and built in components to allow cannabis extractors to meet future health standards regarding the composition of concentrates.
Sherlock expects that the federal governments in Canada—where cannabis is legal—and eventually in the United States will implement stiff regulations covering a variety of areas.
“Regulations are going to be hugely increased,” Sherlock said.
The regulations are expected to concern both the equipment itself and product safety. Sherlock said that extracts, for example, will be subject to testing for pesticides, heavy metals and/or other pathogens.
Further, meeting North American standards will not necessarily satisfy those required by European cannabis markets.
“When we look at our expansion into Europe, the European Union consultants, who are now coming to look at Canadian operations … have a much more detailed list of questions,” Sherlock said. “They want to know about data collection. They want to know about certifications.”
“Regulations are going to be hugely increased, because the Europeans are going to demand it if you want to export product from Canada into a medical market in Europe.”
Oil and Gas Expertise
Initially, Vitalis’ quest to design a reliable, industrial-size CO2 pump led the company to consult laboratory equipment manufacturers for help. However, it encountered only obstacles.
“I would receive pushback on how challenging it would be to make a vessel at (high) pressure and (large) sizes,” Sherlock recalled. “They were like, ‘Oh, there’s dimensional-pressure issues. I don’t know how to make a cap that big. The clamps would be incredibly massive.’”
It wasn’t until Vitalis consulted oil and gas industry engineers that it found a solution.
Oil and gas “engineers come out of a world where it’s a hyper-regulated market, and they make extractors with tons of capacity, pressure vessels rated to 35,000 psi, etc.,” Sherlock said. They design “large industrial equipment that is outdoors in the rugged cold or blistering heat, and it needs to perform 24/7.”
The oil and gas engineers the company ultimately hired, for example, were able to build a durable pump that operates continuously and a system that can be scaled to any size or pressure clients require.
“Nothing was too big or too complicated for them,” Sherlock said, referring to the 5,000-pounds-per-square-inch, 100-liter (vessel capacity) system the engineers initially designed for Vitalis. The company currently manufactures systems with vessel capacities of up to 200 liters and has designed an up-to-2,000-liter system for future launch.
Engineered for maximum flow rates and highly efficient cold separation, the pump system is also certified by:
- The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) to the same boiler and pressure vessel code that serves as the governing standard in the oil and gas industry.
- The Canadian Standards Association (CSA), as well as each province’s regulatory requirements.
While the investment is costly and time consuming, Vitalis expects it to pay off in the long run, because obtaining such certifications both ensures equipment safety and gives clients a competitive advantage.
“If you had bought a Vitalis and your competitor had bought an X, Y or Z, and all of a sudden they got shut down (but) you were allowed to continue running, that’s a long-term benefit,” Sherlock said.
Certifications aren’t the only concern when it comes to equipment lifespan. As an extractor’s business grows and/or product and processing requirements change, equipment upgrades become necessary. Moreover, Vitalis wanted to ensure its pump would not require costly repairs.
“Downtime in the cannabis industry can be even more costly (than in oil and gas) … and delay is unacceptable in an industry that’s moving so quickly, especially when you get into medical markets,” Sherlock said.
Consequently, Vitalis’ pump system is modular: The technology can be readily and cheaply adapted simply by adding or removing sections.
Further, Vitalis manufactures all its extraction equipment in-house, allowing it to quickly send replacement parts to domestic clients. The company also avoids customs delays by storing spare parts with overseas clients.
Manufacturing in-house also facilitates ongoing innovation, which Sherlock touts as even more important than the patent Vitalis holds on its pump system.
“I think innovation is going to keep us at the top of this industry, not necessarily the patent,” he said.
By way of example, he cites Vitalis’ development of a customized solution for a client that later became part of the company’s own pump system.
“(The) client was looking to do a terpene pull before he did his supercritical extraction,” Sherlock said. “And he wanted to do that hyper-cold. Then he wanted to flip over and go into supercritical extraction. So, we designed a needle valve … which gave us really finite control. And that was something that worked exceptionally well. With his blessing, we built that into our standard equipment.”