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Thursday, 1 November 2018

iPhones and Apple Watches Are Allergic to Helium

iPhone Xs Max back

A system administrator at Morris Hospital in Illinois has discovered that helium (yes, helium the gas) can make iPhones and Apple Watch act funny and kill them completely as well. However, for a very strange reason, Android devices are immune to any side effects from helium.

On October 8, when a new MRI machine was being installed at the Morris Hospital, Eric Woolridge, the system administrator, was flooded with phone calls about iPhones owned by the medical staff facility not working properly for no clear reason whatsoever.

Initially, Woolridge thought it was due to an EMP pulse generated by the new MRI machine being installed. However, since other computers and devices were not affected, this theory was ruled out.

Around 40 Apple products including iPhones, iPads, and Apple Watch were affected and acted strangely They would not connect to the mobile network properly and had issues while charging as well. And there were plenty of other units that simply refused to start.

As it turns out, the issue was caused by a helium leak. During the MRI installation, the giant magnet inside the machine needs to be cooled using liquid helium. Once it turns gaseous, the helium was to make its way out the facility using an exhaust vent. On that day, however, the vent ended up leaking about 120 liters of helium from the MRI room to other parts of the hospital.

After some interesting discussion on Reddit, Woolridge confirmed the theory by placing an iPhone 8 Plus in a sealed bag with helium. And rightfully so, the iPhone stopped working after about 8 minutes.

So why helium is wreaking havoc with iPhones and other Apple products? As Redditor ‘captaincool’ explains, it is due to the less than perfect hermetic seals.

It’s definitely the helium.

The processor in a modern, high volume device typically has its main clock driven by what’s known as a MEMS oscillator. These are barely visible mechanical systems that resonate at some designed frequency, and include packaging to convert this resonance into a useful electrical clock signal. These devices are extraordinarily cheap ways to produce a steady clock, but they have a number of drawbacks. Most relevant, in order for these types of devices to function properly, the mechanical resonator must be inside a tiny hermetically sealed chamber with either a controlled gas inside or a vacuum, as the gas composition in the chamber can affect the output frequency.

For both cost and physics reasons, these hermetic seals are not perfect, and are somewhat commonly permeable to small atomic gasses such as helium.

And why only Apple devices are affected and not Android devices? There’s another technical reasoning behind that.

For this specific case, Apple devices probably share a common family of MEMS resonator to reduce manufacturing costs. This clock likely leaks in helium rich atmospheres, pushing the output frequency outside of the bounds that the main processors are designed to handle, rendering them non-functional. If left idle long enough, the devices may begin to function again, but depending on the concentration of helium which leaked in, this could take anywhere from weeks to years to occur in natural atmosphere and temperatures.

In fact, Apple even mentions this in its user guide for the iPhone and Apple Watch.

Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium, may damage or impair iPhone functionality.

While unlikely, now you know that you should keep your iPhone or Apple Watch away from helium at all costs.

[Via Reddit, iFixit]

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