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How Terpenes Are Made

If terpenes are present in most plants, how does Abstrax get them from plants to the potent, purified terpenes in a bottle? Read on to discover exactly how terpenes are made. 

If you’re new to the world of terpenes, these special hydrocarbons are what gives most plants their unique flavor and aroma. They also interact with us to promote a variety of different effects. Honestly, it’s one of the most exciting fields of study and we couldn’t be happier to be at the forefront of terpene discoveries. 

You might be wondering, however, why we’re only just now using terpenes as functional flavoring options. Technically, anytime you use plant matter in your products, you still get a small amount of terpenes. Unfortunately, most manufacturing processes destroy the natural terpenes found in plants. 

Technology has only recently allowed us to extract terpenes for use as the potent, pure ingredients we know and love. So, if you’re interested in discovering exactly how those terpenes are made, keep reading. 

Reading Time - 8 min

How Terpenes Are Made

For skimmers, here are your key takeaways summarized:

  • Terpenes are derived from natural ingredients, and there are many different ways to extract them. 
  • 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.)

Terpenes 101

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 - one of them being a unique 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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Additionally, 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 and then purified terpene oil.  

How are Terpenes Extracted?

Say the goal is extracting a specific 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

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 - 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 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. It’s important to remember that 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 the terpenes float to the surface. 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 

While there is a heavily scientific, overly complicated way of describing this 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 Effects | Terpene Ingredients | Abstrax Tech

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Ta-da! Terpene Molecular Distillation 

Before we dive into how this method works, let’s review some basics. 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 the air itself actually creates impressive 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 it 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 a vacuum. Therein, the space has such low pressure that the particles surrounding a given sample no longer interact with it. When the material is heated under a vacuum, boiling points are lowered. Under these parameters, terpenes can now be removed from plant components without the damage potential of high temperature. Voila!

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.

If you found the paragraphs above somewhat complicated, here’s a simple breakdown. 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 without harming them. Unfortunately, this is more expensive than simple refining techniques like hydrodistillation and steam distillation.

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. So, to mix them with other substances like distillates, tinctures, or oils, mathematical equations are required to convert these volumetric units into mass units (like grams (g), kilograms (kg), etc.).

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 how human muscle is much denser (and therefore heavier) than human fat. 

As accuracy is paramount in any terpene formulation or mixture, density 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.

Another important factor here is volume, and 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, the 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. 


Want More Details About Using and Mixing Terpenes?

Then consider joining our community of Terp Masters for all the latest updates. You’ll be notified anytime we provide information like How to Mix Terpenes with Extracts and Concentrates or explanations of how Not All Terpenes Are Created Equal. We’re so passionate about terpenes, and we’re excited to grow our community.

Feel free to contact us with questions or for unique product formulations.

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