Nanoemulsification 101: How Does It Work?

Nanoemulsification 101: How Does It Work?

It’s common knowledge that oil and water don’t mix, but when it comes to creating cannabis-infused products, that just doesn’t cut it. Instead, manufacturers rely on a process known as nanoemulsification, which enables fat-soluble compounds like cannabinoids to mix into water-based solutions. It’s a critical step in the creation of cannabis beverages and other infused products.

We’ve created this guide to help you better understand the ins and outs of nanoemulsification, which is increasingly used throughout the cannabis manufacturing space.

What is nanoemulsification?

Nanoemulsification is a method of blending oil and water that is used to create infusions that stay mixed. These nanoemulsions improve the distribution of compounds throughout a product, as well as enhance the bioavailability of therapeutic compounds. As a result, this method is commonly used in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries.

More recently, nanoemulsification has been adopted by the cannabis industry, enabling manufacturers to create cannabinoid-infused beverages and other water-based consumables that offer reliable dosages, improved absorption, and rapid onset of effects. Nanoemulsification ensures each sip or bite contains the same proportions of compounds as the last, delivering a consistent experience for the consumer.

Why is nanoemulsification important in cannabis?

In cannabis, nanoemulsification is particularly prominent in the production of infused beverages. Historically, this proved challenging due to the fat-soluble nature of phytocannabinoids, which are hydrophobic by nature. That means phytocannabinoids in their natural state repel water.

When phytocannabinoids are mixed into water-based solutions, they tend to cluster together. The result is a heterogeneous solution with a non-uniform distribution of cannabinoids. This is an issue because when cannabinoids are not evenly distributed into their base, each serving will contain different levels of compounds. Some serving may contain no cannabinoids at all. This results in a wildly inconsistent consumer experience.

For example, a heterogeneous cannabis-infused beverage containing the intoxicating cannabinoid delta 9 Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) might offer 5mg in one sip, but 0mg in another. Inconsistent serving sizes means that consumers would have no way to anticipate the effect the product might have on them. To solve this problem, cannabis manufacturers have turned to nanoemulsification.

How cannabis nanoemulsions are made

Nanomulsification is performed by adding agents known as emulsifiers to the solution. Emulsifiers are amphiphilic compounds, meaning they bind to both water and lipophilic compounds (those that dissolve or bind to fats and lipids) like phytocannabinoids.

When emulsifiers are added to a water-based solution alongside phytocannabinoids, they coat the cannabinoids in a hydrophilic outer layer that easily binds to the water in the solution. This prompts the creation of structures known as “micelles,” in which the emulsifier binds with water on the outside and the cannabinoids cluster together on the inside. This makes a sort of “bubble” that is bound to the water-based solution on its perimeter.

The micelles are then broken down using one of the following high- or low-energy techniques. While low-energy methods can be more efficient because they do not require sophisticated instruments, high-energy methods are favorable for food grade emulsion because they require lower quantities of surfactants or emulsifiers.

The nanoemusification process

The nanoemulsification process is as follows:

  • Pressure: High-pressure homogenization is conducted using either microfluidizers or high-pressure homogenizers. High-pressure homogenizers supply energy and create intensely disruptive forces that form extremely small particle size nanoemulsions, evenly distributing the cannabinoids throughout the solution in very small micelles.
  • Sonication (sound waves): A high-energy nanoemulsion method, ultrasonic emulsification makes cannabinoids more bioavailable and breaks them down into tiny particles that can easily move between the water molecules. In this method, devices aptly named ultrasonicators emit ultrasonic waves to break down the micelles. Manufacturers can control the desired particle size and stability by varying ultrasonic energy input and time.
  • Phase inversion emulsification: As a low-energy process of emulsification, phase inversion is conducted by changing the solubility of emulsifiers by altering their temperature and concentration to create energy. Put simply, phase inversion emulsification is the conversion of two types of emulsions: water-in-oil and oil-in-water. It can be induced by shifting the emulsifier from one phase to another.  
  • Spontaneous emulsification: Low-energy processes like spontaneous emulsification utilize the fact that, in some mixtures, oil droplets can spontaneously form from certain types of emulsifiers, oils, and water phases. The method does not rely on any special equipment and is performed by adding water and an emulsifying agent to a solution of oil.

What type of emulsifiers are used in cannabis nanoemulsions?

Emulsifiers for cannabis are identified by their hydrophilic-lipophilic value (HLB). Or, in other words, their oil and water solubility balance. Emulsifiers with low HLB values are more oil-soluble (lipophilic), while emulsifiers with higher HLB are more water-soluble (hydrophilic). In general, emulsifiers with HLB values of 3–6 are lipophilic and best suited for w/o emulsions.

Common emulsifiers for cannabis production include Polysorbate 80 and Lecithin. With a hydrophilic-lipophilic value of 15, Polysorbate 80 is not only great for oil-in-water emulsions but also a great solubilizing agent.

As a binding agent, Lecithin can keep all ingredients together to aid in distribution within the cannabis oils. There is also evidence that lecithin helps to assist with absorption in the body. When someone consumes a beverage or edible containing THC and CBD, the body must absorb and digest the edible. Lecithin serves as an emulsifier of ingredients to aid with absorption in the body, making the cannabinoid easier for the body to digest. While there is a misconception that Lecithin makes THC more potent, it simply increases the efficiency and effectiveness of products.  

What cannabis products are made using nanoemulsification?

Cannabis beverages have become the most popular use case for nanoemulsification in the cannabis industry. However, that doesn’t only include the obvious liquids you might initially think of; it also includes powders and liquid flavor enhancers that can be mixed into virtually any beverage! The following are among the most common products which use nanoemulsification:

  • Water
  • Sodas
  • Coffees
  • Non-alcoholic wines/mocktails
  • Seltzers
  • Kombuchas
  • Juice-based drinks
  • Dry powders
  • Liquid beverage enhancers

As nanoemulsification has become more commonplace, the variety of beverages has also proliferated. While some products are designed to be consumed in a single serving, others can be stored for multiple uses. When it comes to serving sizes, nanoemulsification has enabled manufacturers to identify consistent serving sizes to help consumers figure out the best dosages for them.

Ensuring product quality and consumer safety starts with the right equipment

Nanoemulsification is a crucial factor developed to solve the issues long-faced by manufacturers of infused cannabis products. Each infused product begins with a quality cannabis extract, made with the proper equipment that’s both safe to operate and to the highest global pharmaceutical standards. With the right cannabis extraction equipment and knowledgeable collaborators, nanoemulsified cannabis products can be produced to their highest quality and for an ideal consumer experience.

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