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E-cig 101: Atomizers

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In the first installment of the E-Cig 101 series, I talked about the differences between cartomizer and atomizer technologies for electronic cigarettes.  If you haven’t yet, you may wish to check out E-Cig 101: Atomizers and Cartomizers which explains a lot of the terms being used in this installment.

As a quick refresher, electronic cigarettes weather using an atomizer or cartomizer produce vapor through the same method: heating ejuice (the liquid solution containing nicotine and flavoring) into a vapor which is then inhaled by the user.  The heating is done by a coil which is charged when current from a battery is applied.  Atomizers are a more mature technology than cartomizers.

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306 and 510 style atomizers

Despite their maturity, as a generalization, there are fewer variations of atomizers as there are of cartomizers. Before the hardcore atomizer fans start beating me up in the comments, there are still a number of variations on this technology which I will explore more in depth as we move along.

While both atomizers and cartomizers should be regarded as consumable parts for electronic cigarettes, atomizers usually last much longer than cartomizers.  Cartomizers were originally designed as a single-use disposable piece for e-cigarette systems and had much less durable components than the typical atomizer.  Atomizers, are part of a (usually) two piece system.  The second piece of that system is typically either a cartridge, a tank or a drip tip.

Cartridges
Cartridge systems are fairly common in starter kit type electronic cigarettes.  Many long-time vapers started their journey with e-cigarettes that used a cartridge system.  A cartridge is a plastic tube that fits in (or over) the atomizer.  The typical cartridge contains an air channel and the cavity for e-juice storage.  The air channel allows air to flow past the atomizer coils and to the user through the hole in the end of the cartridge.

Inside the cartridge is an area where the ejuice is typically stored.  Generally, inside that space is some sort of absorbent filler material.  The material touches the bridge of the atomizer when the cartridge is connected to the atomizer.  The filler holds the juice like a sponge and the suction created while puffing allows juice to transfer from the filling to the atomizer’s bridge.  This process is known as wicking.

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Image: E-cigarette wiki

There are a number of drawbacks to the cartridge system.  Many basic electronic cigarettes do not wick very well. This means that not enough juice is delivered to the atomizer’s heating element via the bridge from the filler material.  When the heating coil is not sufficiently wet with juice, this produces what’s known as a “dry hit.”  Dry hits have reduced vapor production, and often are accompanied by an unpleasant burning taste and throat irritation.

A number of users have tried several different things to improve the intake rate of ejuice into the atomizer by making some modifications like adding a spring to keep the filler pressed against the atomizer bridge or using blue foam from aquarium filters because of its superior wicking ability.

Besides wicking issues, cartridges also do not hold a lot of ejuice requiring frequent refilling or cartridge replacements.  Refilling cartridges can also be messy, juice leakage is a common occurrence.  Using pre-filled cartridges eliminates the mess, but they are not cost effective and typically have a much more narrow selection than purchasing eliquid separately.

Tank Systems

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Innokin Lea

Tank systems eliminate the issues associated with the filler based e-cigarette cartridges.  Tank systems are still a two piece setup consisting of an atomizer and a cartridge.  Instead of a bridge, the atomizer in a tank system uses a pin with wicking material running through it.  The pin is inserted through a hole in the tank cartridge and eliquid is absorbed by the wick from the juice-filled reservoir in the tank.

Tanks not only eliminate the filler material, but are also available with much larger juice storage capabilities. Tanks range in size from .8ml in small cigarette sized models to 1.5ml and beyond in tank systems like the eGo-T and Innokin Lea electronic cigarettes.

Tanks are not without their drawbacks as well.  Many users feel that the flavor in the vapor produced by these systems is not as intense as compared to other types of systems.  Some tanks suffer from leakage problems, and others do not wick very well which results in dry hits.

Direct Dripping
Dripping is a very popular method of applying eliquid to the heating coil of an e-cigarette.  As the name implies, the user simply drips ejuice directly onto the bridge of the atomizer.  Usually, a drip tip is attached to the atomizer to keep the user’s lips from touching the hot atomizer and to allow a large enough passage to drip liquid onto the atomizer without having to remove a cartridge every few puffs.

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Drip Tip Attached to an eGo

Dripping is widely acknowledged to provide a superior experience in both flavor and vapor production among its proponents.  However, dripping is far more complex than the previous methods (or a cartomizer) because there is no cartridge to hold the eliquid, the liquid must be reapplied frequently as it is consumed by the atomizer.  There is a fine art involved in learning how to initially “prime” an atomizer and how frequently re-application of juice is required.

If eliquid is applied too infrequently, dry hits will be the result just like with any of the other methods.  Too much or too frequent application of ejuice will result in “flooding” the atomizer.  Flooding occurs when too much juice surrounds the coils rendering it unable to efficiently vaporize the liquid.  A flooded atomizer will typically produce less vapor and make a gurgling sound when puffed.  Flooded atomizers may also send hot droplets of liquid back towards the user’s mouth or leak eliquid out the battery connector and on to the electronic cigarette battery.

Because of this risk of leakage, it is not recommended to drip with an automatic e-cigarette battery (these are the type that activate when a puff is taken as opposed to when a button is pressed.) Specialized personal vaporizer type e-cigarettes are an alternative to manually dripping juice into the atomizer.  These models feature a built-in storage bottle that holds the e-liquid and delivers it to the atomizer directly usually when the bottle is squeezed.  There is also a high-end model on the market that automatically delivers the correct amount of liquid to the atomizer.

Variations
While not as extensive as cartomizers, there is a fairly robust ecosystem of atomizer types on the market.  Aside from different threading and resistance options, there are atomizers designed explicitly for direct dripping.  One of the advances in this field is the concept of bridgeless atomizers.

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Bridgeless Atomizers

Bridgeless atomizers work on the theory that the bridge is an extra step that separates the juice from the heating coil.  Juice must be absorbed through the mesh on the bridge and then delivered to the coils.  Since the bridge sits directly above the atomizer, it also represents a disruption in the flow of vapor between the coil and user.

Newer innovations coming onto the market include rebuildable atomizers which allow for the parts to be replaced by the user.  Rumors have been circulating about dual coil atomizers coming into the market in the near future, but I have been unable to locate any substantial details.

While the atomizer doesn’t quite have the vast array of options like cartomizers, atomizers enjoy a large and loyal following.  Many argue that the performance and longevity of atomizers far outweigh the benefits of cartomizers.  As I say time and again, the best solution is the one that you like.  So with that in mind, I’d say try an atomizer if you havent (and try dripping) and decide for yourself which works for you the best.

In future articles in this series I’ll explore some of the other concepts behind each like resistance and connector styles. Once those posts are up they’ll automagically show up below (welcome, time travelers!) While you wait, I’ve also posted a couple of links to resources to help you dig deeper into the subject.


Other Articles in This series

Resources
E-Cigarette Resources for New Vapers
Ecig Wiki: Atomizers
Ecig Wiki: Cartomizers
Shameless commerce (hey, you gotta buy this stuff somewhere, right?): Affiliated vendor list
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Updated: 05/27/14 — 3:14 pm

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