What are E-Cigarettes and How Do They Work
Electronic cigarettes, or e-cigs, have exploded in popularity over the last few years. Nearly two million people in the UK now use them and hundreds of thousands of smokers have switched entirely to the new devices. Not everyone knows exactly what they are though and there are a lot of misunderstandings. Many people aren’t sure what to think when they see someone using an e-cig in public. If you’re one of them, here’s a quick guide to what electronic cigarettes really are and how they work.
The first thing you need to know about electronic cigarettes is what they aren’t, and that’s cigarettes. A cigarette is a paper tube full of tobacco, and an e-cig couldn’t be more different. It’s actually a vapouriser that lets the user inhale a flavoured liquid. It’s made up of three parts, so we’ll look at each of those.
The biggest part of most e-cigs is the power supply. This powers the whole device, usually using a rechargeable battery based on the same technology as the one in a mobile phone. As well as the battery itself it usually has some electronics that regulates the voltage, plus a switch. There are two main kinds of switch; automatic ones have an airflow sensor that turns the e-cig on every time you take a puff, and manual ones have a button that you press. Most modern e-cigs use manual switches.
This is the part that creates the vapour. There are too many types to name, but they all have two key parts – a heating element that vaporises the liquid, and a wick to transport liquid to the element. Almost all heating elements are made from a coil of very fine wire, not too different from what you’d find in an electric heater but much smaller. Wicks are usually heatproof silica cord but they can also be made of cotton wool, ceramic or even steel mesh.
The Liquid Container
Finally an electronic cigarette needs somewhere to hold its liquid supply. From here liquid travels along the wick to the atomiser. The atomiser is often actually inside the container, usually in a small chimney. The ends of the wick are exposed to bring liquid to the heating element, and when vapour is produced it can be drawn up the chimney and inhaled. In some designs the atomiser is on top of the tank and the wick runs up through a hole to keep the element supplied.
In disposables and cheaper e-cigs the container is usually combined with the atomiser, and has a hole at one end to act as a mouthpiece. Normally these are filled with a foam material which is soaked in liquid. More advanced devices have a refillable tank, and now most of them have replaceable atomiser heads so you don’t need to throw the whole thing away when the element finally dies.
How It Works
The way an electronic cigarette works is really very simple. When the switch is activated the battery sends power through the heating element, which rapidly heats up. Any liquid in contact with it is turned into vapour. You can then inhale through the mouthpiece; air flows in through a hole at the bottom of the atomiser, passes over the element and carries the vapour into your mouth. One key point is that the element only gets hot enough to vaporise the liquid – it won’t burn it, so no smoke or toxic chemicals are produced. The heating coil will quickly boil off all the liquid that’s touching it, but that doesn’t matter – the wick immediately brings in more. Most e-cigarettes with manual switches will automatically turn off after a few seconds to stop the outside of the atomiser getting too hot to touch.
What comes out of an e-cig might look like smoke, but it isn’t. You’ll notice right away that it doesn’t have a burning smell. That’s because nothing is getting hot enough to burn. Most of what you see is water vapour, just like what comes out of a kettle, mixed with glycol, glycerine and flavourings. Most liquid also has nicotine in it, but the level of nicotine in exhaled vapour is very low – you could spend all day in a small room with someone who was vaping and get less nicotine than you would from a slice of aubergine. Everything in e-cig vapour is certified safe for use in food and medicines – the main ingredient, propylene glycol, is even used in asthma inhalers. It mimics the sensation of smoking, but without the hazards.
Hopefully this introduction answers any questions you had about electronic cigarettes. If you want to know more there’s plenty more information available online, and this site will always be a good place to look.