Monthly Archives: October 2013

e-Cigarette: Is this the next big consumer of silicon and software?

By: Jonah McLeod, Kilopass Technology Inc.

The next major wave in semiconductor technology is the disposable designs, which already exists if you think of the many audio greeting cards currently for sale in gift shops everywhere. While the amount of intelligence in these cards is miniscule, designs are emerging that will require more intelligence, for example, the e-cigarette, which contains a microprocessor that creates a simulated tobacco experience.

According to Electronic Cigarette Report:  “The microprocessor is the mind of the e-cig. This silicon chip performs like a sensor to discover if the user takes a drag. Once the chip discovers a drag, it transmits the sign (signal) to the atomizer to begin performing (atomizing and heating the liquid nicotine to simulate the smoke of a real cigarette). This chip is also accountable for regulating the LED (at the tip that simulates a flame), censoring the charging and regulating the charging lights.”

The e-cigarette is an efficient drug dispensing machine and its ultimate capability has by no means been fully realized. According to Wikipedia, the e-cigarette was first introduced to the Chinese domestic market in May 2004 by Hon Lik, a Chinese pharmacist, who worked for Golden Dragon Holdings, now Ruyan Group (Holdings) Limited, based in Hong Kong.  By mixing propylene glycol (PG) and a variable concentration of nicotine, the device delivers a dose of nicotine in the form of vapor that when exhaled simulates smoke. Clever market research determined that the smoker’s satisfaction came from seeing the equivalent in harmless vapor that he/she previously experienced in smoke.

That’s where the microprocessor inside the e-cigarette comes in. It senses the smoker inhaling via a pressure sensor, heats the mixture of PG and nicotine to simulate the sensation of heated smoke, and delivers the vapor into the lungs as a cigarette would. The microprocessor also lights an LED at the end to simulate the burning end of a real cigarette. The product has been a hit with Citicorp predicting $3Billion in sales by 2015.

And the major U.S. and UK cigarette companies are getting into the game, big time.  Lorillard Inc. acquired U.K.-based electronic-cigarette maker Skycig after earlier buying privately held Blu Ecigs, based in Charlotte, N.C.  Reynolds American Inc. launched its own e-cigarette, the Vuse Solo in Colorado, where it immediately denied that the new product was inspired by marijuana. The suggestion is that any form of inhalable substance can be delivered effectively via an e-cigarette.

The potential of this drug distribution system is limited only by the intelligence contained in the microprocessor. Add more smarts and the cigarettes can offer flavors beyond the menthol contained in real cigarettes. Change the look and feel of the physical device and add the right flavoring with the right amount of nicotine and vapor and the cigarette could become a Cuban Cohiba cigar.  Check out the list of flavors offered by Flavor Producers Inc. of Valencia, CA and you get the idea that just about any taste can be satisfied.

Mixing flavors, scents, tactile feel, and smoking experience—the amount of its lingering sensation once exhaled—are all within the realm of software and hardware simulation. Beyond the user experience, the electronics within the e-cigarette can expand outward with the addition of WiFi. The device can log the smoker’s substance use and warn him/her when a preset threshold has been reached. The smoker can program the device from his/her mobile device to regulate the amount of nicotine or other inhaled substance at different times of day. And of course the user can share his activity on social media.

The one last remaining obstacle is the cool factor. Will the e-cigarette become as pervasively cool as the real cigarette was to the generations of the earlier 20th century? Or will it be relegated to the clandestine places where it’s okay to be bad? The answer to these questions will determine if the e-cigarette becomes a huge consumer of disposable silicon or is relegated to another niche alongside the audio greeting card.