How Electronic Cigarettes Work

The Components

An electronic cigarette consists of the following parts:

  • A battery with a switch
  • A tank containing liquid (eLiquid)
  • An atomiser
  • A mouthpiece

The battery

The battery's purpose is to provide power to the heating coil. The over-the-counter electronic cigarettes have a disposable or rechargeable battery. The switch is automatic; it detects the user drawing air in, and switches on. The more advanced ones have a separate switch that the user has to press. It isn't a problem. The even more advanced ones deliver a variable voltage (set by the user) for more control. Some are self-contained, whereas others use rechargeable batteries that you have to take out and charge. These latter are called MODs, probably because the first ones were hand-built modifications of commercial e-cigarettes.

The tank

In over-the counter electronic cigarettes the cartridge is the tank (and usually the atomiser too). It is filled with wadding that is soaked with eliquid. The more advanced ones use a simple tank that just holds the liquid. Some vapers like to do away with the tank and just drip a few drops of liquid at a time into the atomiser. It's more bother, but it improves the flavour.

The atomiser

The atomiser is generally part of the tank. It consists of a heating coil and a wick. In over-the-counter electronic cigarettes, the atomiser is hidden inside the cartridge. The wick takes liquid in controlled amounts from the tank and delivers it to the coil where it is turned into vapour.

The mouthpiece

In the over-the-counter electronic cigarettes, you just suck on the cartridge directly. The tanks generally have built-in mouthpieces, but the more expensive ones generally have a standard-sized hole where you can plug in your favourite mouthpiece. It's called a drip-tip since it was first used by the dripping fraternity. (See The Tank, above.)

Putting it all together

Here is the sort of electronic cigarette you have seen at the newsagents. This is the one I started out with, a "Clean Cigarette" that I bought from a mall in Ann Arbor. For what it is, it's good. But I spent about $200 on this and a large number of cartridges.
The red bit is the battery and the yellow cartridge screws onto it. At the base of the cartridge is the atomiser and the rest of it is filled with wadding that is soaked in liquid. There's a tube running up the centre from the atomiser to the mouth-hole at the end. I've taken one apart here to show you.
The liquid in the wadding wets the coil and the coil turns it into vapour. Meanwhile air is being drawn in from around the battery connection and is passing across the coil and up the pipe, taking the vapour with it. That's how they all work, the good ones and the bad. Everything else is optimisations and bells and whistles.

One thing you can do, once you know how it all works, is to re-fill the cartridges. For that you need a source of liquid, but there are hundreds to choose from, and they are much cheaper than pre-filled cartridges. It works out at 30-60p per day. (I vape about 1-2ml of liquid per day, at £10 per 30ml bottle.)

As a matter of fact, I've just spotted something that exposes the major flaw in this design.
Because the wadding is in contact with the heating coil, it can and does burn. That will do nothing for the flavour. Nothing good, anyway.

There's another way to improve matters, and that is to take out the wadding and drip a few drops of liquid directly onto the coil. The flavour is excellent, but a drop of fluid only gives you a couple of puffs. It's a lot of bother to go to, but some people like it.

Here is the electronic cigarette I am using now.
It's bigger and heavier, maybe twice the size and weight of the Clean Cigarette. Instead of an automatic switch, this one has a manual switch on the battery. The tank is clear plastic so you can see the level of the liquid. There's not much in this one at the moment, so you can also see the air tube going up the centre to the mouthpiece. The atomiser is hidden at the bottom of the tank, so here's one I disassembled for your delectation and delight.
It's a little different; the first is an EVOD 650mAh battery with a Kanger TS3 tank. This one is an EVOD tank with a eGO 450mAh battery. As I have said, this activity becomes a hobby. Anyway, the bit in the middle is the atomiser. You can see the air tube going up the centre and, just under the silicone washer, you can see the ends of the wick poking out. The coil itself is inside. Here's one I destroyed earlier.
Like I said, I destroyed it, the coil is a mess, but you can see how the it sits between the slots that the wick pokes out of, and the air hole below it.
Sometimes the atomiser is at the top of the tank. That's better for flavour and gives warmer vapour, but it tends not to feed the liquid in as well. Vapers get into winding their own coils, varying the air-flow, using more or less voltage on their coils, and using a stainless steel mesh as a wick. But they all work the same way.

The e-Liquid

CAUTION eliquid contains nicotine, which is a powerful poison. When vaping one ingests it slowly enough to cause no toxic effects. However in liquid form, 2ml may be enough to cause death1. That's about the amount in a single e-cigarette. Treat it with care, always work over a paper towel and wash your hands immediately after handling it. Store it well away from children and pets, just the same as the other poisons in the home.

E-Liquid is composed of four ingredients:

All of these, except the nicotine of course, are safe for human consumption. Propylene glycol is not anti-freeze (that's ethylene glycol.) Propylene glycol is used in stage smoke machines, asthma inhalers and as an anti-bacterial in hospital air-conditioning systems. Whichever flavourings are used, they are food-quality additives.

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