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cannabis concentrates and dabbing science

Wax, Hash, Resin, Shatter: The Science of Dabbing Explained

Vaporizing concentrates is more popular than ever, but what have we learned about the practice so far?

The cannabis concentrates category has exploded in recent years. Sales of extracts like rosin, shatter, sugar, and sauce jumped 40% in 2020, according to market analyst firm Headset.

The global concentrates market, which includes these types of products as well as pre-filled vape cartridges and pens, is expected to reach a value of $5.9 million by 2026 with a predicted compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17% from 2019 to 2026, based on numbers from a recent report.

As the category continues to mature, so does the science surrounding it. From cutting-edge vaporizer technology R&D to debates over temperature, more attention than ever is being paid to the science of dabbing.

Cannabis & Tech Today takes a deep dive into how the practice is different from traditional smoking, the argument for low-temperature hits, and what the future holds for this relatively new sector.

A Different Type of Hit

Dabbing and smoking both require heat, but they’re miles apart in terms of how the elements involved interact with one another. Smoking flower requires combustion, with a flame being applied to ground material in a pipe or joint.

The typical disposable butane lighter produces fire with temperatures averaging a little over 3,500°F. When heat is applied to cannabis, naturally occurring THC-A is converted to delta-9-THC in a process called decarboxylation, providing psychoactive effects.

Dabbing sees concentrates vaporized through the heating of the surrounding container, typically a quartz banger, electronic nail, or vape cartridge. The wax, hash, or live resin within the chamber begins to melt, turning to a vapor that can then be inhaled.

While many people use a butane blowtorch — which reaches around 2,600°F — to heat their bangers, a wide range of temperatures have emerged as preferential for extracts. 

Since concentrates are far more potent than regular flower, less is more when it comes to consumption.

“Taking a dab is like smoking an entire joint in one single hit, which is really good for folks who require immediate alleviation from pain or just want to feel the effects of their cannabis immediately,” said Ricardo Willis, CEO of Hanu Labs, which makes vaporizers such as VapeXhale EVO, the Hanu Stone pod system, and the recently announced Hanu Petra.

There are several dabbing devices on the market targeted toward the savvy concentrate consumer.

Hanu Labs has an impressive line and bevy of heady glass rigs that line the walls of smoke shops across the country. Some of the most popular include the Puffco Peak, the Focus V Carta, the Dipper from Dip Devices, the Dr. Dabber Boost, and the G-Pen line of portable, fillable pens. Each features its own unique heating systems, utilizing an array of technologies and temperature controls. Dabbers may opt for anywhere from 400°F on the low end up to 800+°F, depending on the consistency of the concentrate and consumer preference. 

The same temperature fluctuations do not exist when combusting flower, so what makes dabbing different?

Do you really need to “waste it to taste it?”

The debate over dab temperatures continues to make its way throughout the cannabis community, with strong opinions on all sides. Cooler temperatures or cold start dabs — where the concentrate is placed in the banger or atomizer prior to heating — tend to bring about richer flavors due to the relatively low boiling point of terpenes and cannabinoids. However, residual oil is often left behind when using this method, hence the popular “waste it to taste it” motto used by fans of low temperature dabs.

Vaporizing at higher temperatures produces larger and more powerful hits, leaving almost zero residual oil. Some argue these dabs are more potent but potentially lacking in flavor.

“We obviously want to dab at a temperature above the boiling point of all the cannabinoids and terpenes simply so that they get turned into a vapor and we can inhale them! explained Matthew Elmes, Ph.D., Scientific Director at CannaCraft. “However, going too high in temperature can result in the degradation of these valuable molecules.”

Many of the electronic rigs on the market today only cater to the “hot dab” crowd, particularly
fans of solventless products like rosin which tend to offer a better experience when vaporized at lower temperatures. For example, the Carta’s four preset temperatures range from 600°F to 940°F, although lower temperatures are possible through a corresponding app. 

“Cannabinoids are pretty heat-stable and are generally not destroyed at higher vaping temperatures, though some recent research is finding that higher heat may cause some percentage of them to transform into different cannabinoid species,” Elmes said. “Terpenes, on the other hand, tend to be more prone to combustion and some terp species can be totally destroyed at typical temperatures that are currently used.”

Consistency in heat has been another contentious topic in the concentrate community. Some devices provide a stable temperature during a session while others, such as the Puffco Peak, use a wave of temperatures to maximize flavor and cloud size.

Willis, whose VapeXhale devices use convection heating elements to create a more steady temperature, channels his former culinary career when explaining the importance of stability in consuming cannabis concentrates.

“I personally compare dabbing to creating the perfect beurre blanc, a French butter sauce that requires a well-regulated heat source that’s consistent,” Willis said. “The heat has to be just right because if the temperature gets too hot, the sauce separates, and the next thing you know, you’re getting
yelled at by the kitchen’s head chef! And who wants that?”

The Dabbing Revolution Has Only Just Begun

Cannabis concentrates are not necessarily new — people have been smoking hand-rolled hashish for thousands of years — but the era of legalization has seen a meteoric advancement in extraction and consumption methods. The last decade gave us shatter, diamonds, and a vast catalog of high-tech dabbing tools. 

And we are only at the tip of the iceberg. Hardware companies and cannabis brands alike are in a proverbial arms race, perpetually working to develop the next big thing.

Companies like Indux Labs are already leading the way when it comes to precision temperature control, allowing users of their devices to fully customize their experience through the use of advanced electromagnetic components.

As R&D continues, and more studies are conducted on the chemical structures of compounds like cannabinoids and terpenes, it’s likely the best dab is still yet to come.

This article was originally featured in the fall 2021 issue of Cannabis & Tech Today. Join the newsletter and read the full issue for free.

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