If you have an iPhone, you might want to keep it well away from anything that contains helium gas. It turns out, helium can damage the iPhone to a point where the device is completely unusable. The good news is, the effect is not permanent, but it could last up to a week.
Here’s the story
It all started when one Erik Wooldridge, a Systems Specialist at Morris Hospital in Chicago, started getting calls that mobile phones in the hospital had stopped working right around the same time when the hospital had a new MRI machine installed.
Some of the affected phones wouldn’t power up, some wouldn’t charge, while others that could power up would have problems with network signal. Wifi would work fine but mobile network signals would be inconsistent.
He first taught that the new MRI machine might have emitted an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that may have cause damage to the phones, but he also understood that an EMP would have taken out all the other electronic equipment within its vicinity as well. Something doesn’t add up. What’s even more weird was that only iPhones were affected.
He dug further and with some help from the people at Reddit, he discovered that there was a helium leak in the hospital and it is the helium that is causing problems with the iPhones, Apple Watches were affected too.
He also found out that the problem affects iPhone 6 and above, and all Apple Watches from the first version to the latest one.
How does helium cause damage to the iPhone?
At the heart of every electronic device is a clock. Typically, these are quartz oscillators, crystals that vibrate at a specific predictable frequency. The technology has not changed much from the very first days of digital ‘quartz’ watches.
Now, almost all digital devices have these quartz oscillators. And if the clock doesn’t work, the CPU won’t be able to function and without the CPU, your iPhone is just as good as a brick.
But quartz oscillators don’t keep time as well at high (and low) temperatures, and they are relatively large component. In the pursuit to squeeze more and more in a smartphone and, to make phones smaller, Apple swapped quartz oscillators to MEMS (or microelectromechanical systems) timing oscillators. This component is created by a specialized company called SiTime to replace quartz components in iPhones. In fact, the iPhone uses “the world’s smallest, lowest power 32 kHz oscillator”.
Helium is a small molecule gas. The helium molecules are so small that is can get in between the small gaps — by small we’re talking molecular level here — in the MEMS oscillator and literally stop the clock rendering the iPhone useless. Fortunately, however, this damage is temporarily. If your iPhone suffers from helium-induced bricking, don’t panic, just leave it for a few hour or days and function should return to normal.
If you have an iPad, you’ll want to know that helium has the same effect on the iPad as well.
The latest iPhone XS and iPhone XS Max are IP68-rated, meaning they are dust and also water resistant, and can be submerged up to two metres underwater for up to 30 minutes. But there’s nothing in the IP68 rating classification that says that the device is protected from damage caused by helium gas.
Apple is aware that helium can temporarily disable the iPhone and Apple watch. They’ve even mentioned it in their user guide:
“Exposing iPhone to environments having high concentrations of industrial chemicals, including near evaporating liquified gasses such as helium, may damage or impair iPhone functionality. … 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.”
Considering how sensitive a lot of the parts in an iPhone are, it is quite amazing to see that they can take a lot of abuse. But whatever you do, don’t expose your iPhone, and iPad, to helium.