Russell Thomas was staring at the floor inside a Denver dispensary. The checkered tiles were wiggling beneath his feet, breathing and squirming with a life of their own, almost as if he were tripping. But Thomas wasn’t high. Behind the counter, he saw that an employee had been using butane to make cannabis extractions inside the shop and so much of the toxic gas was leaking it was creating a psychedelic mirage on the ground.
Thomas left without making a purchase.
“In those early days [extraction methods] were so super sketchy,” he says, chuckling at the memory.
That was years ago. Now things have gotten decidedly less sketchy when it comes to making cannabis extractions (especially those that are sold in dispensaries). There are different methods that use less-volatile chemical solvents like ethanol extraction, isopropyl oil extraction, supercritical CO2 oil extraction, water extraction, and even carefully-controlled modern butane extraction—all of which are less likely to blow up in your face.
But even those safer methods take a lot of time—anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes for butane extraction to several hours for ice-water extraction. And some, like CO2 extraction, remain relatively expensive today. “There had to be a better way,” Thomas recalls thinking shortly after visiting that dispensary.
He was right. And he’d spend the next several years of his life and almost every penny he had developing it. The solution he created, though, could revolutionize extraction processes, not just in the cannabis industry but for the microbrewing industry as well.
Thomas is a scientist and trained engineer. He completed a full semester at MIT before “indefinitely postponing” his education to found his first startup venture here in Boulder, according to his Linkedin. He saw a big opportunity in advancing cannabis extraction technology and began turning the question over in his mind.
He revels in solving these kinds of puzzles, but admits this one was a leap of faith. He didn’t have an official workspace or lab to do design and construction—he didn’t even have a garage—just an idea, a very supportive partner, and a lot of drive.
“Luxury startups have garages,” Thomas says. “I had to build this in my house. We did it in the living room.”
He shows me his first prototype model: a large green, sci-fi looking cabinet with piping, dials, buttons, and meters.
“Until we built bigger ones, this was the world’s largest marijuana vaporizer ever,” Thomas says. “And if, for some reason, it hadn’t worked we were going to be weeping.”
Much to his surprise, it worked better than he could have ever hoped.
He describes it like a gigantic volcano vaporizer: Raw plant material goes in one end and is gently vaporized (or “evaporated”) within the machine; it’s then separated from the air and recondensed into a concentrate. The end product is USDA-certified organic (because it uses no chemical solvents whatsoever). It has two to four times the terpene content of conventional extracts, meaning it’s higher potency, and it all happens in a single swift step.
“Plant material is constantly coming through, extract is coming out, and spent material is coming out,” he says. “The actual extraction time is less than two seconds from when plant material goes in to when the vapor is condensed into a concentrate.”
In his living room, Thomas and his partner had to construct a platform to prevent the floor from buckling under the weight of their 1,200 pound Evaporative Extractor prototype. And because he shared a wall with the HOA president, he was cautiously testing it with rosemary instead of raw cannabis at first.
“I smelled so much like rosemary that it was coming off of my breath for days,” Thomas says.
But it all paid off—the first time he tested the machine with actual, activated cannabis, the result was almost too good to be true.
“The first time we ran it, we got an almost 80 percent potent extract,” Thomas says. “I thought, ‘That was just too easy. I can’t believe that worked that well.’” He smiles, adding, “I’m glad it happened that way because I probably would’ve been done if I knew how hard it was going to be to go from that, to something commercial.”
Several generations of Evaporative Extractors later, Thomas’s machine has been fine tuned, honed in, and scaled up. Today LifeTonic currently holds over 40 pending and granted patents on its Evaporative Extraction technology. And the process works with THC, CBD, rosemary, and even hops.
Thomas pulls a jar from his storage closet and opens it up, filling the air with the perfume of a strong IPA.
“This is hops perfume,” he explains. “You can try to [produce] this with steam distillation, but it is very, very energy intensive. It’s not really commercially viable.”
Hop extracts are a big deal in the brewing industry, according to Thomas. Raw plant material (whether its cannabis used in edibles or hops used in beer) can be inconsistent in large, commercial batches, meaning LifeTonic’s Evaporative Extraction method could have just as big of implications for the microbrewing industry as it does for cannabis.
“It’s very different,” Thomas says proudly, of his technology and his business. “But we like to be weird and different here.”