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The History of Vape Coils

For a vaping device to function properly, all of its components must work together. In that sense, it’s difficult to single out any individual component as being more important than the others. The loss of any one component, after all, would mean the loss of the entire device. If we had to call one thing the most important piece of vaping hardware, though, we’d have to give the nod to the atomizer coil. Nothing else affects the vaping experience as profoundly as the atomizer coil does. For evidence of that fact, just look at all of the changes that atomizer coils have gone through in the bit over a decade in which vaping has been around. Vaping still involves using a piece of metal to boil liquid, but that’s just about the only thing that today’s vape coils have in common with the coils of the past.

Let’s take a trip through the past and see how incredibly far vaping has come since the beginning. This is the history of vape coils.

The Ultrasonic Atomizer

The modern e-cigarette was invented by Chinese pharmacist Hon Lik, who obtained a patent for his creation in 2003. Lik’s employer owned the invention. The company quickly changed its name to Ruyan (“like smoking”) and began marketing the product as the first commercially available e-cigarette.

The major difference between the first Ruyan e-cigarette and the vaping devices of today is the fact that Hon Lik’s original e-cigarette used a piezoelectric ultrasound transducer – not a heating wire – to vaporize the e-liquid. Rather than using heat to boil the e-liquid, the transducer forced the e-liquid to enter an aerosol state by vibrating millions of times per second.

Although there have been a few attempts to revive the ultrasonic atomizer in the years since, the history of this type of vape coil basically begins and ends with the first Ruyan e-cigarette. Ultrasonic atomizers simply can’t produce the large vapor clouds that most people want.

The Steel Mesh Bridge Coil

After the first Ruyan e-cigarette was released, it quickly became obvious to other electronics makers in China that vaping was very likely to become a big deal. The manufacturers rushed to develop clones of the Ruyan e-cigarette, and in the process, they innovated rapidly. Although Ruyan maintained an important collection of patents, the company’s products quickly reached a point at which they were essentially obsolete.

The main thing that drove the original Ruyan e-cigarette design to obsolescence was a new vape coil design that used heat rather than ultrasonic vibrations to vaporize the e-liquid. In addition to the coiled heating wire, the new atomizer coil design featured a steel mesh bridge that helped to improve the coil’s reliability.

To understand how the new atomizer coil design worked, it’s helpful to visualize the design of the “three-part” e-cigarette. That type of e-cigarette stored its e-liquid in a hollow plastic cartridge containing a sponge. Depending on the type of e-cigarette, the cartridge was either inserted into the atomizer coil assembly or pushed over it. The atomizer’s mesh bridge pushed on the sponge, causing the e-liquid to run down the bridge and eventually soak into the wick.

During vaping’s initial explosion of popularity, there were several competing e-cigarette designs – and each had its own type of atomizer coil. Each e-cigarette model had its own alphanumeric model name, and some of the more popular models included the L88, 510, KR-808, 801 and 901 e-cigarettes. The 510 thread ultimately became the standard that’s still used for almost all vape tanks today.

The Cartomizer

Although the steel mesh bridge and heating wire made the second-generation vape coils much more reliable than the original ultrasonic coils, those atomizers still had a significant problem in that they weren’t as reliable as a mainstream consumer product really needs to be. Some of the e-liquid in the sponge would almost always fail to drip down to the coil, leading to waste. The fact that the e-liquid was suspended in a plastic sponge also affected the flavor, with many people feeling that they could actually taste the plastic.

The cartomizer was a new type of vape coil that began to make its way around the world in late 2009 and early 2010. If the name “cartomizer” doesn’t make much sense to you, it’ll make more sense when you consider the fact that the name is a combination of the terms “cartridge” and “atomizer.” In other words, a cartomizer combines the e-liquid storage of a cartridge and the heating coil of an atomizer in a single self-contained unit. Instead of pushing a disposable cartridge into a reusable atomizer, the cartomizer made it possible for the user to simply screw a self-contained atomizing cartridge into the e-cigarette battery and vape until the cartridge was empty.

Many small e-cigarettes continue to use cartomizers today, although vape pods have since become more popular.

Inside a cartomizer are one or more atomizer coils wrapped around a wick usually made from silica. That’s in the center of the cartomizer, and an air tube allows vapor to travel from the coil to the user’s mouth. The remainder of the cartomizer is filled with a wet gauze material that’s saturated with e-liquid. As the user vapes, the e-liquid is naturally drawn from the gauze to the wick until the gauze is dry.

The Cartomizer Tank

E-Cigarette Cartomizer HistoryThe first important contribution of the cartomizer to the history of vape coils was that it truly made vaping a pleasure for newbies. The cartomizer made it possible, at last, to treat an e-cigarette like the ordinary consumer product it was always meant to be – just charge it, screw in a cartomizer and vape.

The second important contribution of the cartomizer was that it eventually became the core of the first refillable vape tanks. Somewhere along the line, someone got the idea that if you punched a couple of holes in the wall of a cartomizer and surrounded the cartomizer with a glass or plastic enclosure, e-liquid would naturally flow from the enclosure to the cartomizer as you vaped. When the tank got low, you could refill it. When the flavor quality began to decrease, you could throw the cartomizer away and put a new one inside the tank.

The cartomizer tank – or “carto tank,” as many people called it – became the most popular way to vape among people who used a lot of e-liquid each day. There was still, however, a lot of room for improvement. Everyone wanted bigger clouds, and it’s hard to get big vapor clouds when you’re trying to suck air through a tiny tube stuffed with gauze.

The second problem was that new cartomizers were extremely difficult to fill. The easiest way involved using a syringe to inject e-liquid into the gauze, ensuring that there were no dry pockets that could cause burning. For many vapers, that was just too much effort. What the vaping community really needed was a purpose-built tank that allowed for easy refilling and coil replacements. Before that happened, though, something else came along that was almost as good.

The Clearomizer

By the time the clearomizer was invented, bottled e-liquid had been around almost as long as vaping had. People used it in all sorts of interesting ways. In the early days, they’d remove the sponge-filled cartridges from their atomizers and refill them. They’d replace the cartridges with hollow “drip tips” – a term we still use today – and drip e-liquid directly into the coils of their atomizers. They’d pop the caps off of cartomizers and refill them. The clearomizer, however – named that because it looked like a cartomizer with clear sides – was the first e-cigarette vaporizing attachment designed from the ground up to be purchased empty and filled by the end user.

The clearomizer has taken many different forms over the years. In the first type of clearomizer, silica wicks carried e-liquid up to a top-mounted atomizer coil. Positioning the coil above the e-liquid reservoir was good for vapor production, but it also meant that the vapor produced by the clearomizer could sometimes be overly hot and harsh. As the various manufacturers of vape gear refined their clearomizer designs, the most popular design eventually became one that resembled the vape tanks of today, with the atomizer coil positioned at the bottom and the vapor traveling through a chimney before exiting through a mouthpiece at the top.

Clearomizers are important in the history of vape coils because they were the first refillable e-cigarette attachments that were truly easy to use and just worked out of the box. While clearomizers didn’t hold as much e-liquid as cartomizer tanks, they were infinitely easier to set up. Since clearomizers were available in all of the most popular threading types, they also made it easy for users of mainstream e-cigarettes to switch from pre-filled cartomizers to bottled e-liquid and enjoy a much greater variety of flavors.

The Replaceable Coil Vape Tank

As great as clearomizers were for newer vapers who wanted to enjoy the flavor variety that bottled e-liquid provided, they also had two problems. The first problem was that they didn’t have replaceable coils and were designed to be thrown away when their flavor quality began to decline. As a result, they couldn’t be made from high-quality materials. Clearomizers were plastic, and that was evident in the flavor. The second problem with clearomizers was that they didn’t hold much e-liquid, with most of them topping out at around 1 ml. What the vaping community really needed was a tank, and that finally arrived in the form of the first purpose-built e-cigarette tanks such as the Kanger ProTank and the Aspire Nautilus, which began to hit the market in 2012-13.

With these early vape tanks, the vaping community finally had something resembling the tanks that we use today. Those tanks worked in much the same way, with a replaceable atomizer coil screwing into the bottom of the device and drawing e-liquid from the tank through wick openings. The fact that the tanks weren’t disposable meant that they could be made from stainless steel and glass rather than cheap plastic, and the result was an infinitely better vaping experience from a flavor standpoint.

The Rebuildable Atomizer (RBA)

While the manufacturers of vaping products in China were busy developing cartomizers, clearomizers,Rebuildable Atomizer and vape tanks for mainstream vapers, some ardent vaping hobbyists were taking matters into their own hands by creating platforms that would allow them to build their own vape coils from scratch.

Although the rebuildable atomizer would eventually become another commodity vaping product that would be taken over and improved upon by the factories in Shenzhen, it began its life as an invention of the vaping community. If a vape coil was just a coil of resistance wire and a wick to hold the e-liquid, there was nothing stopping anyone with the proper skills and equipment from making a bigger version of the same thing, slapping a 510 thread on the bottom and connecting it to a vaping device.

While RBAs certainly weren’t for beginners, they offered immense benefits for those with the patience to learn how to use them. When RBAs first appeared, there was absolutely nothing in the vaping world that could compete with them in terms of flavor of vapor production. Vape tanks have since become so good that they can compete with RBAs in both of those areas, but RBAs also have a second advantage in that the materials required to build a coil – usually kanthal wire and cotton – are extremely inexpensive when bought in bulk. While a pre-built coil for a tank usually costs at least a few dollars, using an RBA can cost just pennies per coil.

Rebuildable atomizers remain popular in the hobbyist segment of the vaping community to this day.

The Sub-Ohm Tank

Sub Ohm Tank CoilAfter the first replaceable coil vape tanks appeared on the market in 2012-13, the technology began to advance at a furious pace that the vaping product manufacturers in China would maintain for the rest of the decade. Replaceable coil tanks were certainly a revolution; finally, vapers who didn’t want to build their own coils could enjoy huge clouds and pure flavor without the effort of using an RBA. With that hurdle cleared, though, the vaping community wanted more – bigger clouds and bolder flavors.

Those desires finally came to fruition in the form of the first sub-ohm vape tanks, which used low-resistance heating coils that operated at much higher wattages than the coils of the past. The term “sub-ohm” means that the coil has a resistance lower than 1.0 ohm. The first sub-ohm vape coils tended to have a resistance around 0.5 ohm and a power requirement around 30 watts. Resistances have only gone down – and power requirements have gone up – from there.

Although today’s sub-ohm tanks still look more or less the same as the original replaceable coil tanks, they’ve evolved in a number of ways to satisfy users’ desires for bigger, tastier clouds. Most vape coils now use organic cotton wicks rather than the silica wicks of old. Wick openings are larger to let more e-liquid through to the coil. The coils themselves are much larger to accommodate the larger sub-ohm heating wires. Most importantly, today’s tanks have bigger intake vents and wider mouthpieces to allow as much air as possible to flow through.

The Mesh Coil Tank

In the past few years, the traditional coiled heating wire that has been at the heart of almost all vaping devices throughout the history of vape coils has started to become obsolete. The new kid on the block is the mesh coil, which replaces the coiled heating wire with a strip of metal mesh. Compared to wire, mesh offers a much greater surface area for the mass, which translates to bigger clouds and lower power draw. To date, the mesh coil represents the pinnacle in the evolution of vape coil technology.

The Vape Pod

Vape PodAlthough most of the advancements in vape coil technology over the past several years have focused on the enthusiast side of the market, there is one key innovation that has truly changed the vaping experience for mainstream consumers. That innovation is the vape pod, which has replaced the cartomizer as the e-liquid delivery method of choice for the smallest vaping devices.

The vape pod improves upon the cartomizer in that eliminates the gauze of the cartomizer and instead simply uses gravity to keep the coil fed with e-liquid. Compared to cartomizers, pods offer vastly superior airflow and vapor production. Since vape pods are transparent – unlike cartomizers – they also leave no question as to whether they are empty or not. When you use a pod-based vaping device, you always know when it’s time for a new pod.

Image Credits

  1. Ultrasonic vape coil: http://www.healthnz.co.nz/Ruyan_ecigarette.htm
  2. Steel mesh vape coil: https://www.caperay.com/blog/index.php/2013/e-cigarettes-in-regulatory-no-mans-land/
  3. Cartomizer: https://stevevape.com/smokestik-premium-starter-kit/
  4. Clearomizer: https://www.misthub.com/blogs/vape-tutorials/76788357-tutorial-atomizer-vs-cartomizer-vs-clearomizer
  5. Replaceable coil vape tank: https://perfectvape.com/kanger-protank-3-bottom-base/
  6. Rebuildable atomizer: https://news.wotofo.com/community/vape-atomizers-guide-to-rda-rta-rdta
  7. Sub-ohm tank: https://www.ecigarettedirect.co.uk/ashtray-blog/2015/09/fury-tank-overview-instructions.html
  8. Mesh coil tank: https://www.ecigclick.co.uk/freemax-fireluke-3-sub-ohm-tank-preview/
  9. Vape pod: https://www.reddit.com/r/juul/comments/d5yw9o/exploded_view_of_a_juulpod/

Jason Artman

Jason Artman is the owner and author of eCig One. A full-time freelance writer for more than a decade, Jason’s clients have included corporations such as Intel and eBay. Jason’s online articles have been viewed hundreds of millions of times. After quitting smoking and switching to vaping in 2010, Jason turned his professional attention to the vaping industry and now works with some of the world’s largest vaping and CBD brands.

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