A new report from iFixit looks today a curious case that many iPhones and Apple Watches fail at a hospital at the same time. Initially, the cause was thought to be an electromagnetic pulse, but further investigation showed that the problem was helium.
Whoosh! Screen Cleaner
They started when a new MRI was installed at Morris Hospital outside Chicago. Systems Specialist, Erik Wooldridge said he began to hear that smartphones had stopped working in the building.
His first thought was an EMP caused the problem:
"My immediate thought was that MR should have released some form of EMP, in which case we may be in a lot of trouble."
But he ruled it quickly, when Android smartphones were not affected, and the medical electronics at the hospital usually also worked. The only affected electronics were 40 Apple devices.
The entries to the devices were quite nice. Most of them were completely dead. I plugged them into the wall and had no indication that the device was charging. The other devices that stood on seemed to have problems with the mobile radio. The Wi-Fi connection was consistent and fast, but the phone was very hit or missed.
After the problem was sent to Reddit, Wooldridge heard that it could be related to liquid helium contained in the MR machine. After several investigations, he discovered that there was a separate total leak at the hospital.
Approximately 120 liters of liquid helium were expected to enter the building over five hours, extending 750 times when moving from liquid to gas. While most devices started working again, not everyone did.
The devices began to recover slowly after the first event, but not completely. "We had some abnormal devices. An iPhone had serious service issues after the incident, and some of [Apple Watches] remained, but the touch screens did not work (even after several days.)"
iFixit's CEO and founder Kyle Wiens wanted to dig deeper to find out more.
Each phone has gyroscopes and accelerometers with micrometer-thin elements. My first theory, shared by someone at Reddit, was that the helium molecules were small enough to get into these chips and interfere with the mechanical work.
But there are two issues with this idea: One, Apple is not alone in using MEMS gyroscopes – every phone has them. Why were not Android phones affected? Maybe there's an error in iOS that causes crashes when there's error data from the gyro? But the error also affected Apple Watches and they run WatchOS. In addition, iPhones earlier than 6 were not affected. It seems unlikely that this was a new software bug that affected both iOS and watchOS.
Wiens finally landed on the CPU clock, the oscillator. They are often made of quartz, but recently Apple began using MEMS silicon timing oscillators to improve performance and increase operating temperature range.
A failing oscillator would match Erik's symptoms, as he reproduced in an experiment. "I put an iPhone 8 Plus in a sealed bag and filled it with helium. This was not incredibly realistic, as the original iPhones would have been exposed to a much lower concentration, but it still supports the idea that helium can disable the device. The video will leave the screen on and run a stopwatch during the test. Around 8 minutes and 20 seconds in the phone will be unlocked. Nothing wrong really happens. The clock just stops and nothing else. The screen stayed though. "
I was in able to repeat his experiment in our laboratory. My iPhone 8 lasted for four minutes in a helium atmosphere before it closed completely.
Wiens also discovered that Apple acknowledges this issue in its iPhone and Apple Watch user guides.
Apple's exposure to high-concentration environments
Apple notes that affected devices can recover, but provide some specific troubleshooting steps like letting the iPhone sit for a week without charging it.
Leave the device disconnected from a charging cable and let it air out for about a week. The helium must completely loosen from the device and the battery of the device must be fully discharged during the process. After one week, connect the device directly to a power adapter and charge it for up to one hour. Then the device can be turned on again.
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