Nate Ames, director of engineering Apeks Supercritical, told NutraIngredients-USA that the cost of these systems, and in particular the cost of fully automating them, has been a barrier to entry in the past. And the automation part right was key, Ames said, because while small manufacturers might struggle to afford the capital outlay for new equipment, they are even less able to pay for expert personnel to run equipment that might require a lot of input from the operator.
Getting over automation hurdle
And making the automation affordable was the important breakthrough with the company’s latest piece of equipment, called the 1500-1L. Developed from an existing platform, the unit is designed for a low demand, light commercial environment. The company was able to match the cost of the automation to overall equipment cost, Ames said, which has been a hurdle in the past.
“We kind of bucket our nutraceutical clients into three categories. There are the small mom and pop operations; they might own a lavender farm and historically they have sold the lavender plant parts and now they want to dabble in making their own oils, extracts or flavors. They are very low quantity, low demand, niche operations,” Ames said.
“There is mid scale level of someone who on the order does 50 pounds to 100 points of plant material a week. Then there is large scale where you get as high as 100 tons a week.
“On a very large scale the price to automate the equipment is a small fraction of the total equipment cost. A large scale piece of equipment might cost $500 million to $1 billion so $100,000 for software equipment or controls is infintesimal,” he said.
“If you are a small scale to mid scale company, the entire piece of equipment might only cost $100,000, so adding $100,000 in automation to it doubles the cost and historically has put it out of reach for them. We set our sights on coming up with a solution to that, and we have just developed some new technology to allow that to happen,” Ames said.
Apeks has been building supercritical CO2 systems since its inception in 2001. The company’s units are used in nutraceutical applications, including in extracting mecial marijuana in those states where it is legal. Some units use supercritical CO2 for cleaning purposes and some are even used in the oil and gas industry to separate oil from water as it comes out of a well.
The new benchtop system has its own electric high pressure CO2 pump and temperature control unit, both of which are designed to run off standard 110-volt circuits. The 1500-1L Benchtop utilizes the Valveless Expansion Technology (VET) also developed by Apeks. VET utilizes a proprietary decompression mechanism for separation of the extracted oils from the liquid or supercritical CO2 stream that has no constrictions and no let down valves to cause clogging in the system during operation. And the system is designed as a closed loop, so no CO2 is lost.
Easily switched over for different materials
The VET system also allows the unit to be easily customized for different materials, Ames said. The process involves swapping out parts that are readily labeled, meaning training requirements are minimal and mistakes are minimized. And the technology means it is easier to keep the equipment within spec, Ames said, simplifying GMP compliance at least as far as the extraction process is concerned. And the system is fully automated; a user doesn’t have to be familiar with a supercritical CO2 system in order to operate it successfully, Ames said.
“That was one of the difficulties in coming up with the automation toolkit. We wanted the average business to run it to be able to do everything,” he said.
The system is designed for inputs as low as a half pound of material ranging up to about 15 pounds, Ames said. A base end system can cost as little as $28,000. At that price point, the unit has the potential to transform how smaller ingredient suppliers come to market, and could put a dent in the revenues of some companies now offering CO2 extraction on a contract basis.
“We spend a lot of time and engineering effort to make this stuff as affordable as possible without sacrificing quality,” Ames said.