Apple’s devices are apparently allergic to helium gas, according to a new iFixit report that shines some light on the inner workings of our digital sidekicks.
The story starts with Erik Wooldridge, a Systems Specialist at Chicago area Morris Hospital. When a new MRI machine was being installed at the hospital, Wooldridge began receiving calls that iPhones and Apple Watches were acting up. All in all, up to 40 devices stopped working.
While he first theorized that the MRI machine could have been releasing an electromagnetic pulse, some things didn’t add up. For one, other electronic devices weren’t being affected. More than that, only Apple products were impacted — Android devices were still working fine.
Wooldridge took to Reddit, where other system administrators began speculating that the issue could be tied to liquid helium. After some investigation, the Systems Specialist did indeed discover a leak that vented liquid helium throughout the building.
After addressing the issue, hospital staff began noticing that their Apple devices were slowly returning to normal — with a couple exceptions. One iPhone continued to experience significant issues, while several Apple Watches had problems with touchscreen responsiveness.
Even stranger was the fact that only certain iPhones and Apple Watches were afflicted — an iPhone 5 that was in the building didn’t have any adverse effects.
What Was Causing It?
iFixit’s Kyle Wiens speculated that it could be tied to microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), like gyroscopes and accelerometers, within the Apple devices.
In theory, helium molecules are small enough to get into these tiny chips and interfere with their ability to work properly. But Android phones also use MEMS components.
After further investigation, Wiens discovered that Apple had actually switched to MEMS timing oscillators for newer devices. These MEMS oscillators basically function as a device’s clock — one of the most critical components of electronics.
“Without a clock, the system stands still. The CPU flat out doesn’t work. The clock is literally the heartbeat of modern devices,” Wiens wrote.
Originally, iPhones used quartz oscillators as clocks. These tiny crystals first powered digital quartz watches before being used in modern electronic devices.
But they have a couple of problems, namely issues with working at high and low temperatures — and size, since the components are rather large.
So Apple recently swapped quartz oscillators for MEMS oscillators as part of its quest to make smaller devices.
Wiens and Woolridge both conducted two separate experiments with an iPhone 8 and iPhone 8 Plus respectively, sealing them in helium atmospheres. Sure enough, both devices experienced issues — one froze and the other shut off entirely.
Apple even acknowledges that liquified gasses such as helium could “damage or impair iPhone functionality.” The manufacturer of the MEMS oscillator used within newer iPhones, SiTime, also notes that some of their components may be susceptible to small-molecule gas (which are hard to contain).
This, of course, is an incredibly obscure and rare issue but it is something that Apple and MEMS manufacturers are aware of. And it could cause problems for users who encounter these gasses.
Luckily, the issue doesn’t appear to be permanent. After about a week, an impacted device should return to normal functionality.