Have you ever stopped to think about where the nicotine in vape juice comes from? You might know that the nicotine that’s traditionally been used for e-liquid since vaping began is the same type of nicotine used for most nicotine replacement products. You probably also know that the manufacturers of e-liquid use pharmaceutical-grade nicotine, which means that it’s over 99 percent pure.
Where, however, does the nicotine for vape juice actually come from? Well, it comes from tobacco – right? Actually, the answer isn’t so simple because modern science has finally progressed to the point where it’s no longer necessary for e-liquid to contain any tobacco-derived ingredients at all. Getting to that point, though, has taken decades.
So, where do companies get the nicotine that they put in vape juice? Let’s learn more.
Tobacco Companies Pioneered Tobacco Extraction in the 1960s
The process of extracting nicotine from tobacco began with research conducted by tobacco companies such as Philip Morris in the 1960s. These were a few of the questions that the companies wanted to answer.
- How can we reduce the amount of tobacco required to fill a cigarette without making the cigarette seem underfilled?
- How can we make use of the stems and ribs of tobacco plants to avoid throwing those parts of the plant away – without selling a cigarette that consumers don’t enjoy?
- How can we satisfy the public’s demand for a lower-tar and lower-nicotine cigarette while still delivering a product that consumers actually want to buy?
As it turned out, the answer to many of these questions was “ammonia.” The tobacco companies invented reconstituted tobacco sheets, which were made by essentially grinding tobacco leaves, stems and ribs together and processing the paste with ammonia, which caused the tobacco to release its pectin. The pectin helped the mixture form sturdy sheets that could be shredded and used to fill cigarettes.
Inadvertently, this research also led to the discovery of freebase nicotine. Freebase nicotine, it turned out, was more bioavailable than the salt-based nicotine found naturally in the tobacco leaf. Thanks to freebase nicotine, tobacco companies were able to create cigarettes that had lower total nicotine levels than conventional cigarettes but were still completely satisfying to smoke.
One of the reasons why ammonia is so useful in the processing of tobacco is because it’s both a potent solvent and a powerful alkaline pH adjuster. Those features would make it very useful in the future.
Where Does Freebase Nicotine Come From?
In order to extract any substance from a plant, you need to do a few things. First, you need a solvent that forces the plant to release its constituent components. Since nicotine is a salt in its original form within the tobacco leaf, you need to introduce a chemical that releases the nicotine from the salt. Lime can do that job, but ammonia is more common.
Once you’ve exposed the tobacco to a solvent, what you’ve got is effectively a wet slurry of tobacco leaves and solvent. You need to separate the tobacco extract from the solvent, and the way to do that is by distillation. You’ll heat the mixture to a temperature sufficient to boil the constituent components of the tobacco while leaving the solvent behind. By collecting the vapor and allowing it to condense in a separate container, you’ll end up with raw tobacco distillate.
Tobacco distillate, however, isn’t the goal here – the nicotine still needs to be separated out because the goal is to create pharmaceutical-grade nicotine that’s over 99 percent pure. Separating the nicotine from the tobacco distillate requires the use of another solvent such as kerosene or hexane. Removal of that solvent leaves you with pure freebase nicotine.
Extracting nicotine from tobacco probably sounds like a fairly complex process – and it is quite complex. So, why is vape juice such an affordable product? The answer is that e-liquid makers aren’t the only companies that require pharmaceutical-grade nicotine. The same freebase nicotine that’s used for e-liquid is also used for virtually all other nicotine replacement products like gums, patches and lozenges. The pharmaceutical companies need massive amounts of nicotine, so tobacco processors perform nicotine extraction in extreme bulk.
Where Does Nicotine Salt Come From?
So, now you know where the nicotine for freebase nicotine vape juice comes from. What about nicotine salt e-liquid? As it turns out, the creation of nicotine salt is surprisingly simple because nicotine salt vape juice begins its life as standard freebase nicotine e-liquid. The nicotine salt is created simply by adding an acid that triggers a chemical reaction and adjusts the mixture’s pH. As you’ve learned from reading the brief history above, ammonia is a powerful pH adjuster. Freebase nicotine is alkaline as a result of the extraction process. A bit of acid – usually benzoic acid – reverses that process and gives the nicotine a more neutral pH.
At this point, you might be wondering why there’s so much of a fuss over nicotine salt e-liquid if it’s just regular e-liquid with a little acid added. In fact, it’s the acid – not the form of nicotine – that makes nicotine salt vape juice so special. The fact that freebase nicotine has an alkaline pH makes it problematic for some vapers. Specifically, the alkalinity causes throat irritation for users of smaller devices like pod systems.
With the types of very small devices that new vapers often prefer, it’s necessary to use an e-liquid with a nicotine strength of around 50 mg/ml in order for that vaping setup to have roughly the same nicotine delivery profile as a tobacco cigarette. With freebase nicotine, using an e-liquid with a nicotine strength that high is impossible. With any nicotine strength above 18 mg/ml or so, freebase nicotine e-liquid tends to cause unpleasant throat irritation.
With its more neutral pH, nicotine salt e-liquid doesn’t cause the same throat irritation at high nicotine strengths that freebase nicotine e-liquid does. That makes it perfect for new vapers who are trying to transition fully from smoking to vaping and need all of the nicotine they can get. Although existing vapers don’t need the higher nicotine strengths that nicotine salt makes possible, it’s been a great thing for new vapers and has helped to make pod systems some of the most popular vaping devices on the market.
Where Does Synthetic Nicotine Come From?
Until recently, the two main forms of nicotine for e-liquid were both derived from tobacco. However, the future of the vaping industry is moving in an entirely different direction. Very soon, it’s likely that almost all of the e-liquid in the United States will be made with synthetic nicotine or tobacco-free nicotine.
As long as vaping has existed, there has been plenty of demand for synthetic nicotine among the members of the vaping community. E-liquid companies and consumers alike were very interested in the possibility of creating and buying vape juices that had no connection whatsoever to tobacco or the tobacco industry. Until recently, though, synthetic nicotine – while available – was too costly to be of any use in commercial products. Although it was possible to create synthetic nicotine, the resulting products would have been so expensive that consumers wouldn’t have wanted to buy them.
The laboratories of the world have long been aware of the desire to have a synthetic alternative to tobacco-derived nicotine – and over the past year or so, they’ve developed methods of synthesizing nicotine that are much more economical than the methods of the past. There’s such demand for synthetic nicotine, in fact, that many of those laboratories have patented their discoveries to keep them safe from competitors.
Although the methods for creating synthetic nicotine are far too complex to describe in this article, they aren’t so different from the process of extracting nicotine from tobacco leaves. Essentially, you need to start with a molecule that’s a precursor to nicotine and expose the molecule to a chemical that triggers a reaction. Next, you need to remove the nicotine from the solution, either through fractional distillation or by exposing the mixture to a solvent that forces the nicotine to crystalize. You’re left with a nicotine molecule that’s extremely pure and has no connection whatsoever to the tobacco plant.
Here at VapeJuice.com, we strongly believe that synthetic nicotine represents the future of the entire domestic vaping industry. As stated above, we think it’s extremely likely that virtually all USA-made e-liquids will be made with synthetic nicotine very shortly providing that laboratories are able to manufacture sufficient amounts of tobacco-free nicotine to meet the demand. By the end of 2021, it’s very probable that virtually all of the vape juice sold in the United States will use synthetic nicotine rather than tobacco-derived nicotine.
We believe that the transition to synthetic nicotine is a great thing for the future of the vaping industry, and we intend to do our part. Looking forward, we intend to add only tobacco-free nicotine vape juices to VapeJuice.com in the future. You’ll love the experience of using synthetic nicotine e-liquid, and we’ll all be a lot happier after having shed the vaping industry’s last connection to tobacco.