Enlarge / Helium-filled balloons.

Reddit consumer harritaco found one thing quite uncommon concerning the iOS gadgets used at their administrative center. iPhones and Apple Watches stopped working unexpectedly, utterly locking up and recovering solely days later, generally struggling long-term hurt.

The failures appeared to coincide with the set up of a brand new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine. MRIs use highly effective magnetic fields and helium-cooled superconductors, and one thing concerning the presence of this new machine was upsetting the Apple . That magnets could be a drawback for digital gadgets isn’t any huge shock—they’ll harm magnetic media, confuse compasses, and induce electrical currents in dangerous methods—however surprisingly, it is not the magnets that appear to be the issue this time—it is the helium.

The iPhone consumer information warns that proximity to helium can impair performance and that to recuperate, gadgets ought to be left to air out for every week or so in an setting distant from the rogue helium. Harritaco found that, throughout set up of the MRI machine, some 120 litres of liquid helium leaked and vented into the setting. This created a comparatively excessive helium focus, and any Apple uncovered to that helium stopped working.

To check this speculation, harritaco performed some experiments by which an iPhone was put in a sealed bag of helium; after a couple of minutes, it stopped working.

This leaves one huge query: why? Redditor captaincool supplied a believable idea. Smartphones include microelectromechanical methods (MEMS): tiny mechanical methods which can be built-in into chips. These mechanical methods are used for issues just like the gyroscope and accelerometers. These gadgets function in tiny cavities throughout the chip (they want area to flex and vibrate), with these cavities both evacuated to create a vacuum or full of a gasoline with recognized properties.

Which means that the MEMS gadgets have a seal to plug the hole the place the air was pumped out (or one other gasoline pumped in). Whereas these seals are in a position to preserve most air constituents out, they’re permeable to the very tiniest molecules. Specifically, each diatomic hydrogen and monatomic helium can permeate the seals. At regular atmospheric concentrations of hydrogen and helium, that is no huge deal, however, when uncovered to excessive helium concentrations—such because the concentrations skilled by harritaco—sufficient helium might diffuse throughout the seal to render the MEMS parts non-functional (at the very least briefly, till the helium escapes).

Our guess is MEMS oscillator used to generate a clock sign for the telephones is misbehaving after publicity to helium, therefore the system-wide failure.

That is in all probability the weirdest strategy to make a smartphone cease working that we have heard. As for why non-Apple gadgets seem to flee with out hurt? They could use completely different seals or maybe aren’t utilizing MEMS gadgets in such vital roles.

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