Decaffeinating Coffee Using Supercritical Carbon Dioxide


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Coffee. Two images are shown and labeled “a” and “b.” Image a shows a molecule composed of a five member ring composed of two blue spheres and three black spheres. One of the blue spheres is bonded to a black sphere bonded to three white spheres and one of the black spheres is bonded to a white sphere. The other two black spheres are double bonded together and make up one side of a six-membered ring that is also composed of two more black spheres and two blue spheres, both of which are bonded to a black sphere bonded to three white spheres. The black spheres are each double bonded to red spheres. Image b shows a diagram of two vertical tubes that lie next to one another. The left-hand tube is labeled “Extraction vessel.” A small tube labeled “Soaked beans” leads into the top of the tube and a label at the bottom of the tube reads “Decaffeinated beans.” The right tube is labeled “Absorption vessel.” A tube near the top of this tube is labeled “Water” and another tube leads from the right tube to the left. This tube is labeled with a left-facing arrow and the phrase “supercritical carbon dioxide.” There is a tube leading away from the bottom which is labeled, “Caffeine and water.” There is another tube that leads from the extraction vessel to the absorption vessel which is labeled, “supercritical C O subscript 2 plus caffeine.”
Figure 1. (a) Caffeine molecules have both polar and nonpolar regions, making it soluble in solvents of varying polarities. (b) The schematic shows a typical decaffeination process involving supercritical carbon dioxide. Source: OpenStax Chemistry 2e

Decaffeinating Coffee Using Supercritical Carbon Dioxide (OpenStax Chemistry 2e)

Coffee is the world’s second most widely traded commodity, following only petroleum. Across the globe, people love coffee’s aroma and taste. Many of us also depend on one component of coffee—caffeine—to help us get going in the morning or stay alert in the afternoon. But late in the day, coffee’s stimulant effect can keep you from sleeping, so you may choose to drink decaffeinated coffee in the evening.

Since the early 1900s, many methods have been used to decaffeinate coffee. All have advantages and disadvantages, and all depend on the physical and chemical properties of caffeine. Because caffeine is a somewhat polar molecule, it dissolves well in water, a polar liquid. However, since many of the other 400-plus compounds that contribute to coffee’s taste and aroma also dissolve in H2O, hot water decaffeination processes can also remove some of these compounds, adversely affecting the smell and taste of the decaffeinated coffee. Dichloromethane (CH2Cl2) and ethyl acetate (CH3CO2C2H5) have similar polarity to caffeine, and are therefore very effective solvents for caffeine extraction, but both also remove some flavor and aroma components, and their use requires long extraction and cleanup times. Because both of these solvents are toxic, health concerns have been raised regarding the effect of residual solvent remaining in the decaffeinated coffee.

Supercritical fluid extraction using carbon dioxide is now being widely used as a more effective and environmentally friendly decaffeination method (Figure 1). At temperatures above 304.2 K and pressures above 7376 kPa, CO2 is a supercritical fluid, with properties of both gas and liquid. Like a gas, it penetrates deep into the coffee beans; like a liquid, it effectively dissolves certain substances. Supercritical carbon dioxide extraction of steamed coffee beans removes 97−99% of the caffeine, leaving coffee’s flavor and aroma compounds intact. Because CO2 is a gas under standard conditions, its removal from the extracted coffee beans is easily accomplished, as is the recovery of the caffeine from the extract. The caffeine recovered from coffee beans via this process is a valuable product that can be used subsequently as an additive to other foods or drugs.


Flowers, P., Theopold, K., Langley, R., & Robinson, W. R. (2019, February 14). Chemistry 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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