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The Chemistry of CO2 and Steam Distillation Compared

To start let’s briefly tackle the fundamental differences between CO2 extraction, and steam distillation (our post on extraction methods goes into more detail overall). Most essential oils are distilled using steam distillation, this provides a more volatile plant extraction which gives us the term “essential oils.” This extraction method is done by running gaseous steam over [...]

To start let’s briefly tackle the fundamental differences between CO2 extraction, and steam distillation (our post on extraction methods goes into more detail overall). Most essential oils are distilled using steam distillation, this provides a more volatile plant extraction which gives us the term “essential oils.” This extraction method is done by running gaseous steam over a plant material and collecting the gas in a condenser that will turn the plant/steam mixture into a liquid phase oil. The extraction is done at 100oC since this is the temperature of gaseous water. The main difference between steam and CO2 extraction is that the temperature is much lower in CO2 extraction because a high-pressure gradient is implemented. This allows supercritical CO2 liquid to pass over the plant material at low temperatures, in most cases, this extraction method will contain heavier components and not cause any chemical reactions to occur during extraction.

This GC/MS spectra of a steam distilled Frankincense Carteri showcases the tendency we see of steam distilled oils. This tendency is that most of the chemical components are grouped in this area. This is because monoterpenes and other volatile plant materials typically come off first in the GC/MS analysis because they are lighter molecules (in general). This distinction can only be fully understood when comparing them to the other CO2 spectra below.

This GC spectra of CO2 extracted Frankincense Carteri shows the difference in chemical makeup between this and its steam counterpart. After about 30 minutes the compounds are usually heavier and sesquiterpenes in this spectra. At 54 minutes the large peak of Serratol can be seen. This is not observed in the steam distillation variant.

The debate between aromatherapists and essential oil enthusiasts rages on with the topic of distillation methods. Some swear by steam distillation and others believe CO2 extracts hold the key plant’s plants “true nature.” At the Ananda Apothecary, we recognize the value of both methods and have the perspective of: “it depends!” In some cases, the CO2 is the preferred method, and in that case, we don’t even provide the less preferred steam counterpart.

Let’s start with an example: Myrrh CO2 is an oil that comes from tree resin, resinous plant material, in general, contains heavier chemical compounds. These heavier compounds can only be seen by doing a CO2 extraction. Recently, the popularity of CO2 extracted essential oils has gained popularity among the essential oil community. The most common reasons being a fuller more embodied aroma of the oil, and a higher content of volatiles that may contribute to a higher therapeutic value of the oil. But what is all the hype really about?

Steam distilled essential oils undergo a process in which one can separate the volatile components of a heated mixture. For essential oils, plant matter is placed in water and heated at a high temperature, the vapor is then collected, cooled, and voila we have essential oil!

On the other hand, Supercritical CO2 extraction of an oil uses CO2 as a non-polar solvent under pressure and low heat to extract volatiles. CO2 makes an excellent solvent due to its non-toxic, odorless, inexpensive, colorless, and non-flammable properties.

REFERENCES:

Melo, S.A.B. Vieira de, Costa, G.M.N., Garau, R., Casula, A., & Pittau, B.. (2000). Supercritical CO2 extraction of essential oils from Thymus vulgaris. Brazilian Journal of Chemical Engineering17(3), 00. https://dx.doi.org/10.1590/S0104-66322000000300014

Molnar, M., Mendešević, N., Šubarić, D., Banjari, I., & Jokić, S. (2017). Comparison of various techniques for the extraction of umbelliferone and herniarin in Matricaria chamomilla processing fractions. Chemistry Central Journal11, 78. http://doi.org/10.1186/s13065-017-0308-y

Li, Shiyou; Yuan, Wei; Deng, Guangrui; Wang, Ping; Yang, Peiying; and Aggarwal, Bharat, “Chemical composition and product quality control of turmeric (Curcuma longa L.)” (2011). Faculty Publications. Paper 1. http://scholarworks.sfasu.edu/agriculture_facultypubs/1

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