It is fair to say that “vaping” is now mainstream. Despite the fact that vaporizers have been available in the commercial markets for years, their surge in popularity amongst consumers has been relatively recent. This newfound popularity for “vaping” and vaporizers is due, in part, to an increase in applicable markets as well as a re-branding of the products to a much broader group of consumers.
When vaporizers first hit the market, they were broadly marketed as a smoking cessation tool or nicotine replacement therapy (NCT). This characterization of vaporizers, and the act of “vaping” itself, would become engrained in popular culture, and has perpetuated to the present day. As a result of its intial position and perception in the marketplace, vaporizers and “vaping” appealed to a relatively small group of individuals.
Several factors precipitated the surge in popularity for vaporizers and the act of “vaping” more generally. These factors can be surmised thusly;
- A drastic improvement in the quality, efficiency, and technology of vaporizers.
- The introduction of flavoring into e-liquid mixtures.
- The advent of cloud-chasing, and increased appeal to new users (increased product customization and a re-envisioning of how to brand products and to whom).
- Carryover into additional markets such as cannabis.
What is a Vaporizer?
It should come as no surprise that the technology of vaporizers has improved in the years since their introduction into consumer markets. In order to adequately discuss how vaporizers have improved, it is best to start with an explanation as to what a vaporizer is and how it works.
A vaporizer is a device that is designed to change the state of matter of either a solid or liquid into a gaseous state without combustion. A device consists of several components including, but not limited to, a mouthpiece, a chamber, and an atomizer or heating coil.
The components of a device can be made from a wide array of materials, for example a mouthpiece may be plastic or glass, while the coil and chamber may be made from unique metals. The materials used to craft the devices are vetted in terms of safety, quality, and consumer preference.
In addition to the variability in crafting materials, vaporizers also differ from one another in terms of price, size, battery life, charging time, maintenance, efficiency, chamber size, power output, shape, color, reusability (closed systems versus open systems), application of heat, and user control.
How Do Vaporizers Work?
In their original state, vaporizers were fairly simplistic in their design and function. This was to be expected given that they were the first iterations of the products, and because they had a singular application; to vaporize a nicotine e-liquid mixture. As a result, there was little incentive, at the time, to innovate the technology beyond the scope of what had already been established in the marketplace. Aesthetic and functional improvements were made, but subsequent iterations of the devices still had a singular focus; to vaporize a nicotine e-liquid mixture.
Carryover into the Cannabis Market
It wasn’t until opportunities arose, that coincided with the legalization of marijuana, that “vaping” was able to expand its applications beyond nicotine replacement therapy (NCT) and smoking cessation. The vaporization of cannabis and its derivatives posed unique challenges to product design. The use of cannabis derivatives such as waxes, tinctures, budders, butter, kief, hashish, oils, dabs, and cannabis flower all had unique considerations that incentivized manufacturers to develop more sophisticated devices.
The Basic Function of a Vape Device
That being said, vape pens all operate around two functions of thermodynamics; conduction and convection.
Conduction takes place in all phases of matter including solids, liquids, gases. The rate at which energy is conducted as heat between two bodies is a function of the temperature difference, also known as the temperature gradient, between the two bodies and the properties of the conductive medium through which the heat is transferred.
In contrast, convection takes place when motion is caused by buoyancy forces that result from the density variations due to changes in the thermal temperature of liquids or gases. In the absence of an internal source, when the liquid or gas is in contact with heat, its molecules separate and scatter, causing the density to decrease. As a consequence, warmer molecules rise while cooler molecules sink. In so doing, the hotter molecules transfer heat to the cooler molecules.
Understanding how a vaporizer works entails that we know how heat is applied to the e-liquid mixture, cannabis derivative, or cannabis flower. Vaporizers apply heat through conduction, convection, or a mix of both. In conduction devices, the heating coil or atomizer makes direct contact with the chamber whereas convection devices heat air that is drawn into the device as we inhale, which is then passed on to the chamber. Both methods of applying heat can result in vaporization, but conduction heating does pose a greater risk for burning.
It is Important to Remember …
When manufacturers describe a vape device in terms of conduction or convection, they are describing how the heat is applied, not the process by which your product is vaporized. Why is this an important distinction? Solids cannot be vaporized through convection. Viscous mixtures such as waxes, tinctures, budders, and butters can theoretically be vaporized through convection, albeit imperfectly in a vape device. The reason for this is because in solids, and to a lesser extent in viscous mixtures, molecules are too tightly packed to facilitate the process. So, when you buy a “dry herb vaporizer” or a “dab vaporizer” or anything like them, be aware that they do not vaporize your product 100%, some burning is occurring. True convective vaporization can only occur in a liquid or a gas where matter can move freely.
What is an E-Liquid?
An e-liquid is a viscous mixture comprised of propylene glycol, vegetable glycerin, flavoring, and nicotine or denatured cannabis. It is meant to be used in a vaporizer wherein it is heated at a sub-optimal temperature required for burning and subsequently converted to a gas that is inhaled into the lungs through the mouthpiece on the vape device.
The first generation e-liquids were devoid of flavouring, the only perceivable taste being a mild sweetness from the glycerin. This contributed to the limited appeal of vaping early on in consumer markets. As time went on, flavouring was introduced and served as an enticement to consumers to vape. It made the act of vaping palpable and supplanted its primary function of satiating a nicotine craving, or providing a “nicotine rush”. It was a major step in making “vaping” worthwhile for its own sake.
“Cloud Chasing” is a sub-culture within the vaping community that revolves around customizing a vape device and e-liquid mixture in such a way that produces tremendous volumes of vapour. Such customizations include, but are not limited to, sub-ohm vape devices (manipulating the electrical resistance to the power input to the device), and manipulating the vegetable glycerin (VG) to propylene glycol (PG) ratio.
…What is Sub-Ohm Vaping?
The term sub-ohm refers to devices that have an electrical resistance of less than 1 ohm. What this means is that the potential power output of the device (wattage) drastically increases. In the context of vaporizers, the wattage is expressed as heat. So, the lower the electrical resistance the hotter the atomizer or heating coil will get. This is particularly important in devices that have a fixed voltage in the form of a battery. Sub-ohming allows cloud chasers to vape at temperatures well beyond what the voltage capabilities of the battery in their device would normally dictate.
Increased Appeal, and a New Consumer Demographic
Cultural developments like “cloud-chasing” and “sub-ohming” within the vaping community have made the act of vaping itself as well as the devices more enticing to consumers. Moreover, With the introduction of flavouring into e-liquid mixtures and carryover into the emerging cannabis markets, “vaping” has a newfound appeal for people who would not have considered it when it initially entered the marketplace. The trend among manufacturers has been to keep innovating and refining vape devices both aesthetically and functionally for mass appeal and use.
Such refinements include, but are not limited to; a less intrusive smell compared to combustible products like cigarettes or smoked cannabis, a cleaner delivery system (no ash), palpable flavours, a less harmful product than smoking either tobacco or cannabis, high portability, bluetooth and smartphone integration, and an altogether sleeker and more enjoyable experience.
There is every reason to think that manufacturers will only continue this trend going forward, which means that for better or worse “vaping” is and will continue to be a mainstay in the marketplace and culture.