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MRI Helium Leak Really Did Bork iPhones And Apple Watches But There's More To The Story

One of the most peculiar tech stories that we have reported on in recent memory had to deal with a helium leak involving a newly installed MRI machine at a medical facility. Helium leaked in significant enough volumes to cause iPhones, iPads and even Apple Watches to fail throughout the building.

At the time, it was suspected that all of the Apple devices were using a similar microelectromechanical system (MEMS) oscillator, which was made even more apparent given that Android devices within the building were completely unaffected. We first reported on the incident in mid-October, and yesterday, the original poster on reddit, Erik Wooldridge (harritaco), provided an update. 

Apple iPhone Xs line up front face 09122018

It was confirmed that Android devices were unaffected, and that no other electronic devices had any symptoms of helium poisoning. "Models of iPhones and Apple watches afflicted were iPhone 6 and higher, and Apple Watch series 0 and higher. There was only one iPhone 5 in the building that we know of and it was not impacted in any way."

He went on to add that there were upwards of 100 patients that streamed in and out of the building during the day, however, none of them reported issues with their devices. And therein lies the rub; the helium leak occurred over the span of many hours.

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Erik Wooldridge filled a big with helium and inserted an iPhone to see how long it'd last.

“This all happened during the ramping process for the magnet, in which tens of liters of liquid helium are boiled off during the cooling of the super-conducting magnet," Wooldridge explained. "It seems that during this process some of the boiled off helium leaked through the venting system and in to the MRI room, which was then circulated throughout the building by the HVAC system. The ramping process took around 5 hours, and near the end of that time was when reports started coming in of dead iPhones."

It would stand to reason that employees likely would have been in the building for most if not all of that 5-hour period when the leaked helium was wafting through the building. Patients, on the other hand, were likely there for much shorter periods of time, so their devices wouldn't have been exposed long enough to cause long-lasting damage.

After reaching out to Apple for an explanation for the helium "bricking" incident, the company didn't provide a technical reason for the failures, but pointed to the iPhone and Apple Watch user guide, which states:

Explosive and other atmospheric conditions: Charging or using iPhone in any area with a potentially explosive atmosphere, such as areas where the air contains high levels of flammable chemicals, vapors, or particles (such as grain, dust, or metal powders), may be hazardous. Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium*, may damage or impair iPhone functionality. Obey all signs and instructions.

Separately, the Official iPhone User Guide warns:

If your device has been affected and shows signs of not powering on, the device can typically be recovered.  Leave the unit unconnected from a charging cable and let it air out for approximately one week.  The helium must fully dissipate from the device, and the device battery should fully discharge in the process.  After a week, plug your device directly into a power adapter and let it charge for up to one hour.  Then the device can be turned on again. 

The teardown specialists at iFixit delved further into why large concentrations of helium affect Apple devices in particular. They discovered that Apple is using MEMS timing oscillators from a firm called SiTime. The company's SiT512 is billed as the world's smallest 32 kHz oscillator. However, even these microscopic structures are susceptible to helium molecules which can oozes into even the smallest crevices, affecting pressure levels. These MEMS devices serve as the digital "heartbeat" for modern computing devices, and if they stop functioning, so does your smartwatch, tablet, or smartwatch.

The iFixit guys tried to reproduce a helium-induced failure by placing an iPhone in a helium-rich environment. Although this experiment didn't exactly match up with original MRI-induced incident (which occurred over the span of hours), the test iPhone 8 Plus croaked after just four minutes.

So, while helium exposure does seem to be a problem for newer iPhone devices, it's a situation that rarely pops up in the real world.

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