WOODLAND, Cowlitz County — For chemical engineer Nick Harambasic, hemp has a surprisingly complex structure. A veteran of the paper and pulp industry, he now spends his days in a research lab full of beakers, test tubes, extraction and distillation equipment that help him pull cannabidiol, or CBD, from dried cuttings of the plant.
Harambasic has found no cookbook recipe on the best way to get this job done. So, there has been plenty of experimentation as he prepares to scale up operations to produce CBD, as well as other hemp products, in a new facility he plans to open later this year.
“There are lots of puzzles to solve, and lots of applications,” said Harambasic, co-founder of Anovia LLC. “That’s the beauty of it.”
This new hemp-processing industry, which only this year became legal in Washington, is taking hold at a time when federal and state regulators are still scrambling to try to catch up with the explosive growth of the CBD markets and develop rules to guide development for products that are being ingested and sometimes smoked.
The highest concentration of the CBD-rich resin lies at the tip of tiny plant structures called trichomes.
For Harambasic, one big challenge is how to safely and economically concentrate this resin, the raw material that is distilled to make pure CBD isolate — a white powdery product that even with a big downturn in markets can still fetch more than $1, 000 a pound.
Ethanol, which acts as a solvent, is a widely used option to create a kind of resin-rich crude.
“Ethanol has been easily available, and does do a good job,” said Abe Fleishman, a grower whose Oregon company North Star Hemp also markets some CBD products.
But ethanol also has drawbacks, pulling out things such as wax and plant sugars that can complicate preparations for distillation. So Harambasic has developed his own process, which he describes as proprietary, and created a more refined resin product. He and business partner Dana Dennis hope this approach to CBD extraction will offer a competitive edge as markets grow more sophisticated, competitive and eventually more regulated.
“People think this all just happens. But a lot of [CBD] crude is hard to clean up,” said Dennis, lab director of Portland-based Clean Tech LLC, which processes and helps to market some of Harambasic’s CBD production.
Harambasic is confident enough in the results, so far, to invest in the new facility, which will initially be able to process 1,000 pounds of dried hemp per day — roughly five times more than a typical day’s processing at the Woodland research laboratory.
He also hopes to make a profit from other products.
Hemp has trace amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. It can be pulled out of hemp, and, if regulators allow it, sold in states where marijuana is legal.
Hemp wax could be used by snowboarders or skiers.
Hemp pigments called flavonoids have value in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.
“There is so much value there,” Harambasic said.