Without Hon Lik, the world of e-cigarettes would be a very different place indeed. Born in September 1951, Lik is the man responsible for inventing the modern e-cigarette when, in 2001, he started work on a device that would deliver nicotine in the form of vapor.
“I already knew it would be a revolutionary product,” he told The Spectator in a 2015 interview. “Some in China have called it the fifth invention – after navigation, gunpowder, printing and paper. But that’s too much.”
In these early days, Hon Lik’s invention was markedly different to the one we’re now familiar with. Instead of a heating element, which is now used to vaporize the e-liquid and produce vapor for the user to inhale, Hon Lik’s initial design made use of a piezoelectric ultrasound element. It was bigger and bulkier than the e-cigarette design vapers have become accustomed to today, but it was a significant start.
“In 2001 I devised a system on a large console, using food additives as solvents,” Hon Lik told French scientific publication Sciences et Avenir in 2013. “At the time I was working on vaporization by ultrasound but the droplets formed were too big to resemble tobacco smoke. This technology is used for example in some household humidifiers; it consists of making a metallic diaphragm vibrate at an ultrasonic frequency in a liquid to create micro-droplets which then, upon contact with room-temperature air, form a sort of cold vapor.”
As the months passed, Hon Lik’s idea was refined, and a smaller, more practical device that used a heating element was patented in China in 2003. In 2004 e-cigarettes hit the market for the first time through the Chinese company Ruyan, which Hon worked for. In 2005, Ruyan started exporting e-cigarettes outside of China, and in 2007 they entered into the US market.
They were a rapid success. By 2014, global sales of vaping devices were worth just under $5bn, and that number is expected to rise rapidly across the next few years, hitting over $15bn by 2019.The majority of sales come from Hon Lik’s home country of China, with the USA contributing the second highest level of sales and Japan, Russia, and Germany making up the rest of the top five.
In 2013, Hon Lik joined Fontem Ventures, the parent company of blu, in order to continue development and innovation in the e-cig sector, an aim he’s sure to achieve. And what’s his goal going forwards? “My real passion, like many other inventors,” he told The Guardian, “is to leave some trace behind.”