How does an e-cigarette work?

A brief guide explaining how vaping devices work

Explanation of how an e-cigarette works

You charge your battery, fill your tank with e-liquid, take a puff and hey-presto, your e-cigarette bursts into life and produces some vapour. But ever wondered, how does this happen!?

Knowing exactly how an e-cigarette works doesn’t just relieve this curiosity. Having a basic understanding can help you make sure you’re maintaining and using your e-cigarette correctly so that you’re getting the best out of it (and avoiding it from stopping working!)

So, in this blog we'll try to explain how e-cigarettes work, without getting too technical in the details, especially as they are relatively simple devices… so here goes…

Starting with the brief history of the e-cigarette…

The electronic cigarette was invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik back in 2003 and were first available for consumers to buy a year later in 2004. The basics of his early technology can still be seen in the design of every new vaping device you buy today. Of course, improvements have been made, especially in the last few years. E-cigarettes today are easier to fill with e-liquids and are much more consistent at vapour production than back in 2004! But the fundamentals of how almost all e-cigarette devices work has remained largely unchanged.

The 3 key parts of an e-cigarette device

There are 3 main parts to your e-cigarette:

  • a battery,
  • a heating element
  • a tank of some kind to store the e-liquid.

It doesn't matter if these are joined together in an AIO (all-in-one) device or separate components, they all serve the same purpose. So let’s take a look at each one in turn. 

Parts of an e-cigarette vaping device

The battery, the power source of your e-cigarette.

Whether you are using a “fixed voltage” stick-type battery or a “variable power” box mod, they are all doing the same thing, supplying a small electrical current to the heating element. In some e-cig devices it's a “direct” voltage output from the battery to the heating element. In other devices the battery is actually powering a circuit board that then delivers an adjustable voltage to the heating element, powers a screen, LED lights and other things on the e-cigarette.

E-cigarette devices use Lithium battery cells of various types. These batteries are also used in many other applications - they are very common in anything that uses rechargeable battery technology around your home and garage, from cordless vacuum cleaners to a laptop computer. Obviously without a battery your e-cigarette device would not work, it's the power source it needs to operate!

The coil, the heating element of your e-cigarette.


The heating element (also known as an atomiser) is what we refer to as the ‘vape coil’ or simply ‘coil’ because it's typically made from a coil of resistance wire. It's essentially the same technology that's in your toaster, hair-dryer and kettle, but at a much lower voltage. When the power is applied to the vape coil, the electrical current meets the resistance and causes the wire to heat up. This also causes the e-liquid in contact with the vape coil to heat up too, which turns it into vapour.

Some companies are now releasing 'mesh coils' and even tanks with ceramic plates as the heating element but they are all doing the same thing, heating your e-liquid so it turns into vapour.

Inside a vape coil showing wick and coil

Inside the vape coil is the “wick”. The wick is what absorbs the e-liquid from the tank and keeps it in contact with the vape coil. The most common wick material is organic cotton. However some recent coils are starting to use different materials such as flax paper, wood pulp or a combination of cotton and another material. But they all serve the same purpose, to keep the vape coil in contact with a constant and regulated amount of the e-liquid.

The tank, the e-liquid storage space for your e-cigarette.

All e-cigarettes have some sort of tank (also known as a cartridge) to store the e-liquid and feed it to the wick. The tank part of an e-cigarette is the most complicated and hardest to design, simply because it needs to have holes in it for air to come in and vapour to come out, while stopping the liquid just pouring out of it. It's a bit like trying to design a bucket with holes in the bottom that doesn't leak! 

Most designs rely heavily on a vacuum created inside the tank. That along with well thought out airflow paths and vape coil and wick designs that help to keep the e-liquid inside the tank and not all over your hands. There are some excellent tanks like the Aspire Nautilus X that have the airflow coming in from the top which makes them extremely leak resistant. But a worn or damaged O-ring, seal or a vape coil with a manufacturing fault can cause e-cigarettes to leak. It's why almost all tanks and devices come with spares, it's important that your tank is sealed properly.

That's it?

Pretty much, yes!

You have a charged battery, a tank full of your favourite e-liquid, a wick and a coil. When you push the button of your e-cigarette device the battery starts supplying electrical power to your vape coil, it heats up and so does the e-liquid that's in contact with it, which creates a little cloud of vapour. When you inhale on your e-cigarette the air is drawn through or around the coil and out of the mouth-piece, along with the vapour, which allows more e-liquid to turn into vapour around the coil. It's a very simple but effective process and doesn't involve any smoke or combustion (burning) like a regular cigarette. This means there are no toxic chemicals from burnt tobacco.

The last few years have seen many advances in vaping. E-cigarette devices are easier to use, perform better and are much more reliable. But almost all of them work on the same basic principles of the device invented by Hon Lik 15 years ago. A man that changed the lives of millions of people with his simple, but ingenious, idea.


My Vape Box Team

How an e-cig works

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