How Do Electronic Cigarettes Work?
No matter what your level of experience may be with electronic cigarettes, you probably have some questions about what they are and how they work. Here, we're going to offer a brief overview of exactly how they work, and why so many people are switching over to them from combustible cigarettes.
First, a little terminology. Electronic cigarettes - commonly called e-cigarettes - are devices that are integral to the activity known as “vaping.” Vaping is done by what’s commonly called a “vaper,” or a person that vapes. Vaping mimics the act of smoking combustible cigarettes by heating ejuice to form clouds - or “vapor” - which is then inhaled by the vaper in place of the smoke created by actual cigarettes.
While devices vary from tiny to fist-sized, and the vapor they produce similarly range from wisps to room-fogging clouds, all e-cigs share the same basic inner workings.
In this article, we’ll look at these devices and how they’re powered, and then look at the e-liquid - or “juice” - that’s necessary to produce the vapor.
Electronic cigarettes come in many shapes and sizes, but they’re powered by the same basic vape hardware. Key among these is a battery to provide power with which heat to vaporize liquid is supplied.
Every device uses a battery of some kind. The most common type of battery on models that allow the user to swap them out are high-discharge lithium-ion 18650 cells, so called because they’re 18 millimeters (mm) thick and 65.0 mm long. Slightly larger than a household AA cell, these batteries differ in performance much more than they do the appearance, as they're capable of delivering a lot more energy a lot faster than a household alkaline cell.
Large devices, called “mods” can reach high temperatures and hold larger amounts of e-liquid than pod mods. These devices often use multiple batteries which need to be charged externally. Over the last few years, smaller devices - termed “pod mods” or “cigalikes” have become increasingly common. These devices use an internal battery which can’t be replaced and they’re charged like your smartphone via USB port.
Regardless of device type, you have a battery providing electrical energy. But what does the electricity produce? Heat. Specifically, power is delivered to a metal coil inside an atomizer. This coil is hooked to positively- and negatively-charged terminals, so that when power is applied the opposing poles create friction, which is converted to heat. That heat then converts liquid, which is drawn to the coil through a fibrous wick, into vapor, essentially "atomizing" the fluid.
Beyond power and heat, the final component of creating vapor is e-liquid, sometimes referred to as e-juice. These are made up of a mixture of vegetable glycerin (VG) and propylene glycol (PG), most liquid also contains flavor extracts and a dose of nicotine. VG is typically thicker than PG, and each has their pros and cons. High-VG liquids will produce a smoother, sweeter taste and deliver bigger clouds, while high-PG liquids will flow more easily through smaller, low-powered devices and produce more of the sharp "throat hit" recent ex-smokers will associate with the act of smoking cigarettes.
Liquid is housed in a vape tank, pod, or “clearomizer” of some sort, which also houses the atomizer where a liquid is converted to vapor. Some “open” systems allow the user to refill tanks with liquid extracted from bottles. “Closed” systems use pods that snap into the device and are not refillable. While convenient and less prone to messy liquid spills, closed systems limit a user's choice in vape juice flavors and are often more costly than open systems over the long run.
To recap: liquid flows from a reservoir via wicking to an e-cig's coil. A battery applies electrical power to the coil, creating heat to atomize the liquid, converting it into vapor, that's then inhaled as a substitute for the smoke. Seem simple enough? Hopefully, but if not you can check our vast library of vape knowledge for more.