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How Does Vaping Work?

Vaping (that’s the activity) is done by a vaper (that’s the person vaping) that mimics smoking by heating a liquid to form a cloud of vapor (that’s the white cloud) that is inhaled and exhaled by the vaper.

OK, now that we’ve come full circle on the terminology, let’s explore how the process works.

There are literally hundreds of vaping devices and thousands of liquids that can be combined to make vapor clouds of all tastes and sizes—from tobacco to tangerine, from I-can't-see-it's-so-foggy to nearly invisible. But they all rely on the same basic scientific principles.


First, you need a battery and mod to supply power to an atomizer (which we covered in our previous entry: What Is Vaping?) to heat up the specialized e-liquid until it vaporizes. While some e-cigarette models are disposable most use rechargeable high-amp batteries that are either integrated into the vapor device or removable high-amp batteries that can be removed from the vaporizer for external recharging or replacing.

Both of these types use special, high-power lithium-ion chemistry. The most popular size of replaceable cell is the 18650. These are 18 millimeters thick and 65mm long, larger than the common AA household battery and capable of storing and delivering much more energy than your TV remote could ever need.

Those batteries need to be housed somewhere and never carried around loosely, typically these batteries are stored inside of your mod or inside of a battery case for safety. Smaller, self-contained devices are classified in the "cigalike" and "pod mod" categories may simply be referred to as built-in batteries, which denotes both the battery and its holder as one unit.

Larger devices with a richer set of features allowing for the adjustment of power output, vapor temperature, and other characteristics are called "mods." The first mods were created by DIY vapers who literally modified flashlights and other devices to make them suitable for vaping. By the time manufacturers began developing mass market versions, the name had stuck. You could also call these devices Advanced Personal Vaporizers, or APVs, though early adopters' preference for Electronic Nicotine Delivery Systems (ENDS) has generally failed to gain traction. These days regulated mods offer a wide-ranging set of options and size options with different performance options from temperature control to updateable software.

Okay, now we're cooking with electricity (which is incidentally a cleaner way to cook than with gas or fire). So how are we doing that?


The power from the vaporizer's battery is processed through a mod and applied to a device called an atomizer or a coilhead. At the heart of every atomizer is a metal coil with the ends attached to positive and negative poles. When electricity is applied, the resulting resistance between the poles generates heat. This heat then atomizes any liquid in contact with it, converting it into steam that is not smoke but mimics the look and feel of smoke from a combustible tobacco product.

To get the liquid to that coil, though, something is needed to draw it in. Stuffed inside or around the coil is a material called the wick—its job is to absorb and draw liquid to the coil, similar to how the wick in a lantern absorbs fuel for the flame. Common wicking materials include organic cotton and silica, though some devices use ceramic or other porous, absorbent materials.


Finally, we've got the liquid itself to address, and some means of containing it. You may have heard of "dripping," practiced by some advanced vapers who carry around a bottle of liquid to drip it directly onto their coils and wicks every few puffs.

There's no need to worry about that mess and hassle, however, if you don’t want to. Most modern atomizers come as part of a tank system. You may hear old school vapers calling this a "clearomizer" because while modern devices have transparent walls that allow you to keep an eye on your liquid levels, early ones were solid metal that kept users in the dark about when they were going to run dry.


Tanks come in a few styles. Traditional ones for "open system" devices that can be refilled usually contain disposable atomizers (consisting not just of the atomizer but also the coil and wicking, and confusingly sometimes referred to as simply "coils") surrounded by a glass tank that can be filled with liquid waiting to be wicked to the coils. They also come as rebuildable tank atomizers also known as RTA's which require a bit more of a hands-on approach in mounting a coil and providing your own wicking prior to use. Tanks come in different sizes of capacity, depending on your vaping volume per day a smaller or larger capacity might suit you best.

Newer "closed system" devices are paired with "pods," which is typically another way to describe a closed pre-filled clearomizer that can't be refilled. However, there are open-system compact devices with pods that can be refilled a few times before they're disposed of. These are becoming more and more popular.


As for the e-liquid itself? Diving into what it's composed of is another topic for another day, but to keep things simple it has four main components. First is propylene glycol (PG), an ingredient in medical inhalers and other pharmaceutical devices. PG transmits flavor and provides the "throat hit" former smokers associate with smoking. Another component is vegetable glycerin (VG), a sweet, thick substance often derived from palm or soy that's responsible for creating the visible cloud emitted from a vapor device. Also present in much lower concentrations are food-grade flavor extracts and, often, a nicotine concentrate that is extracted from tobacco plants or lab-synthesized.

That, in a nutshell, is how vaping works.