Autoclaves for Tissue Culture Cannabis Cultivation and Cannabinoid Testing Labs
The cannabis industry is quickly coming of age, with cannabis cultivation methods advancing at breakneck speed. Although the cliché might continue to be tie-dye and overalls, the reality is going to be lab coats and pipettes. That means that growers need to invest more of their resources in being sure they can reliably prepare growth media, run disinfectant cycles on tools, sterilize flasks, and process waste loads in accordance with local and federal expectations.
Meanwhile, as is the case in every other area of the food, beverage, and supplement space, cannabis growers must rise to consumer and regulator demands for consistency, transparency, and accountability. As such, standardized testing and quality control (QC) have quickly become the cornerstones of the blossoming cannabis industry.
Whether growing or testing, getting the wrong lab sterilizer now can lock a budding business into years of frustration and significantly limit their options as the industry evolves.
Rapid Advancements in “Clean-Room” Cannabis Cultivation
An increasing number of growers are in the midst of adopting lab-based plant tissue culture propagation methods. These make the “advanced” cutting-based hydroponic cloning operations of just a few years ago look like a nineteenth century farm by comparison.
Older propagation systems are a lot like traditional farming:
- Yields are firmly tied to how much space you can dedicate to cultivation
- Growers struggle with pests, microorganisms, pathogens, bacteria, molds, and fungi (all of which easily pass from mother to seedling)
- Despite all the talk of “clones,” it can be difficult to reliably maintain consistent cultivar genetics
Meanwhile, sterile lab-based “micropropagation” methods rely more on labor than square footage. This gives growers much more room to scale up before needing to commit to a larger facility. Additionally, because your culture room operations are sterile from the start, it’s much easier to deliver a minimally processed product free of pathogens and chemical residues. Finally, embracing lab-based propagation methods makes it easier to ensure consistent genetics with cultivars.
Sterilization Advice for Cannabis Tissue Culture Micropropagation
Tissue culture cannabis micropropagation offers five key advantages:
- Compact operations—A cutting-based cloning operation requires a warehouse, while a comparable tissue culture cannabis lab will produce the same number of plants in 1/10th the space
- Efficiency—Tissue culture produces more starter plants per square foot of facility with less labor and tissue culture explants can be held in “suspended animation” nearly indefinitely
- Profitability—A tissue culture cannabis operation costs about 75 percent more to set up but is roughly 36 times more productive (in terms of plant yield per square foot)
- Reliable cultivar and strain genetics—Between mutations and genetic drift, traditional “clones” aren’t really clones at all; a tissue culture operation produces a truly genetically identical plant every time
- Healthier plants—Tissue culture is a sterile operation: explant sterilization prevents pathogens passing from mother to child and in-vitro explants held in aseptic plant tissue culture media cannot harbor disease or pass it along
But to reap these benefits a plant tissue culture lab needs pharmaceutical-grade cleanliness when preparing instruments, handling explant samples, and prepping cytokinin-rich culture media.
Tissue culture labs should look for sterilization equipment capable of running pre- and post-cycle vacuum stages. Special “media warming” options and adjustable cycle delays often prove helpful, especially as labs get busier. In general, a top loading sterilizer can be an extremely good value in such a lab. These are very energy and cost efficient, take up little floor space in your culture room, but offer all of the advantages of a larger sterilizer.
Sterilizer Tips for Testing Cannabis Plants, Seeds, Cultivar, and Products
Producing high-quality cannabis and cannabinoid products is only half the equation. Consumers and regulators want consistency, a known shelf-life, some gauge of purity and concentration—and proof that these are real metrics, not made-up numbers. Hence the rise of full panel compliance tests that verify potency while recording the presence of pesticides, chemical residues, heavy metals, and so on.
Cannabis safety compliance labs will want an affordable, reliable autoclave that can:
- Verifiably render cannabis plants/tinctures/cannabinoid-bearing samples “unusable” for safe disposal (as per DEA rules)
- Sterilize pipette tips and other implements to prevent cross contamination
- Prepare culture media and sterile water for lab operations
- Process potentially hazardous biological wastes (e.g., plates, whirl-pack bags, etc.)
- Dispose of seeds and seedlings (i.e., from seed germination rate testing processes) in compliance with USDA and state-level “noxious weed” agricultural regulations
You’ll need to make a large initial investment to set up a cannabis testing lab. Don’t cut corners. First and foremost, without reliable lab equipment you do not have a reliable lab. But even worse, money saved on the initial purchase price of a sterilizer tends to be lost in high maintenance costs and a very short service life. “Affordable” benchtop units, for example, typically last only 2 to 3 years in a compliance or tissue culture lab. Meanwhile a properly specced research-grade autoclave will operate reliably for 15 to 20 years, and keep pace with your growing demands.
At the very least, a cannabis compliance lab will want a steam autoclave that’s robust enough to handle daily waste loads and large enough to accommodate 2L flasks/bottles. Top loading sterilizers again prove to be an asset, as they are durable, efficient, and can easily accommodate tall flasks alongside regular loads (often reducing the number of cycles you need to run each day).
The Right Autoclave for Cannabis Labs
First and foremost, the right autoclave for cannabis growers and cannabinoid-product producers/testers is one sold by a company that is open and eager to work with organizations in this new industry. Make sure your vendor offers good customer support and has authorized service agents who can get to you in a timely manner.
Next, check that the autoclave you are considering is optimized for processing growth media. Many vendors still sell “research-grade” sterilizers that are actually repurposed medical-grade units. While these can be good for many applications, they chronically underperform when handling culture media and waste loads (two of the most common load types in cannabis labs).
North American buyers will want to be sure that their autoclave has an “ASME-stamped chamber.” This ensures that the pressure vessel was manufactured to the appropriate standards. In addition to being a safety issue, this is also a basic operational concern: Almost every locale and insurer in the U.S. and Canada requires testing labs to use ASME-stamped steam autoclaves.
(Check this list to see if your area requires an ASME stamp in accordance with Section VIII of the Pressure Vessel Code, as per the National Board Synopsis of Boiler and Pressure Vessel Laws, Rules and Regulations.)
A Note on Buying Used Sterilization Equipment
If you are considering used sterilization equipment, make sure to ask about:
- The warranty—it should carry at least a three-year warranty
- Service options—Are local techs available? Are replacement parts easy to acquire, or does this unit rely on many custom pieces only sold by the OEM?
- The pressure vessel—Is it ASME-stamped?
- Previous uses—What was the sterilizer previously used to process? Sterilization equipment used to regularly handle pathogenic loads (including waste loads) can harbor some nasty surprises in their exhaust and drain plumbing and may not be appropriate for food, beverage, or cannabis-related tasks.
If you do decide to purchase used or refurbished, make sure that the pressure vessel has been tested. A third-party lab should have performed an ultrasound thickness test “in accordance with ASME Code Section 5″. That lab should confirm that the pressure vessel thickness is still within the “corrosion allowance” listed for that model. This indicates that the pressure vessel can withstand the amount of pressure that the autoclave typically generates.