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How does an e-cigarette work?

28 Oct 2014  | Rob Spiegel

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The e-cigarette comes in a wide range of styles. (Source:

This feature examines the inner workings of the electronic cigarette. While e-cigarettes seemed like a gimmick just two or three years ago, they're catching fire—so to speak. Sales topped $1 billion last year and are set to hit $10 billion by 2017. Cigarette companies are fighting back by buying up e-cigarette manufacturers.

Most users turn to e-cigarettes as a non-tar nicotine delivery system that is (allegedly) a lot more fun—and a lot more like smoking—than a patch or gum. One of the hallmarks of the e-cigarette is the absence of smoke. Instead, the nicotine is vaporised and the user inhales vapour rather than smoke with all of its dangerous particulate matter.

In full disclosure, the editor of this article tried an e-cigarette as research for the story. While it brought back memories of late-teen smoking, it wasn't nearly the blast of pure tobacco smoke. It's also probably not nearly as deadly. These things are bubbling with fruit flavours, but ultimately, it wasn't all that much fun.

No matter what shape your nicotine is in

Most e-cigarettes are shaped like a conventional cigarette, though some are shaped like a pipe. The first generation was clearly designed to simulate a cigarette. New generation e-cigarettes—often called mods, PVs (personal vaporiser), or APVs (advanced personal vaporiser)—have an increased nicotine-dispersal performance, housing higher capacity batteries, and come in various form factors, including metal tubes and boxes.

Many e-cigarettes are composed of standardised replaceable parts that are interchangeable from one brand to the other, while some disposable devices combine all components into a single part that is discarded when its liquid is depleted. Common components include an atomiser, a power source and a container of e-liquid.

Components of an e-cigarette

Here's a breakdown of the components that make up an e-cigarette. (Source:

The atomiser

An atomiser generally consists of a small heating element responsible for vaporising e-liquid, as well as a wicking material that draws liquid in. Along with a battery, the atomiser is the central component of every personal vaporiser. Differences between atomisers cause differences in the ingredients and their concentrations delivered to users, even when the same liquid is used.

A small length of resistance wire is coiled around the wicking material and then connected to the positive and negative poles of the device. When activated, the resistance wire (or coil) quickly heats up thus turning the liquid into a vapour, which is then inhaled by the user. The electrical resistance of the coil, the voltage output of the device, the airflow of the atomiser, and the efficiency of the wick play important roles in the perceived quality of the aerosol that is produced by an atomiser. They also greatly affect the quantity or volume of aerosol that will be produced by the atomiser.

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