Helium: Apple’s New Foe

by Spencer Gisser | 11/2/2018


Despite a bizarre incident, and much like the noble gas itself, smartphone manufacturers are unlikely to react.

Tech publications have been abuzz over something strange at Morris Hospital in Ottawa, IL. In total, 40 iPhones and Apple Watches experienced a mysterious litany of failures including non-responsive touch screens, lost cellular connectivity, and charging problems. Systems Specialist Erik Wooldridge, with the help of Reddit, traced the problem to an unexpected cause: a new MRI machine had leaked helium.

Helium, the smallest noble gas, had wormed its way into the electronic components in iPhones and Apple Watches. Exposure to the gasses normally present in air does not typically result in problems for mobile devices – most mobile devices, and even specialized rugged devices, are not airtight. Helium is present in air, but only in very small quantities: while larger molecules such as nitrogen and oxygen compose 99% of the atmosphere at sea level, only 0.0005% of the air we breathe is Helium. As a result, ordinary air does not have enough helium to pose a threat to Apple devices.

The concentration of helium in Morris Hospital, however, was far beyond ordinary. Over five hours, about 120L of liquid helium leaked from the new MRI machine. The liquid helium, kept below -452.1°F, boiled and expanded to 90,000L of gaseous helium. The gas (which thankfully is completely non-toxic) began to circulate throughout the facility in such high concentrations that it then infiltrated electronic components.

Curiously, Android phones and other electronic equipment were unaffected – the helium appears to have only affected Apple devices. The most likely culprit is the SiT512, a miniaturized microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) component that Apple has used to replace bulkier quartz oscillators that are standard among mobile devices. The SiT512 has considerable advantages over quartz oscillators, but some versions of this component appear particularly vulnerable to helium intrusion. According to Apple, the best course of action to fix devices that have been exposed to helium is to turn off and unplug the device, wait a week, and turn it on again.

Helium is a truly uncommon hazard for mobile devices. However, the natural gas has a variety of scientific and industrial uses due to its unusual physical properties such as its chemical inertness, rapid convective heat transfer, and extremely low boiling point. 15% of the global demand for helium is from electronics manufacturing, with additional demand from the gas’s use in supercool magnets for various scientific purposes. However, electronics problems stemming from helium leaks are incredibly rare. Even when helium is present, it tends to rise quickly towards the ceiling, away from electronics placed on tables or in users’ pockets.

Apple devices remain quite popular among healthcare organizations, even those with MRI machines. Many of the health care organizations that use Apple devices enjoy its streamlined user interface and relatively low pricing. Some smartphone manufacturers offer devices tailor-made for health care, and come equipped with features to facilitate sterilization and frequent use in sometimes-chaotic environments, but even these devices do not explicitly guard against helium intrusion.

Healthcare organizations tend to deploy mobile devices among their staff due to the significant benefits that these devices can provide. With a smartphone or tablet, nurses and physicians gain access to patient information and reference materials that enable them to make better decisions. While iPhones and iPads are common in healthcare, organizations in this sector have also adopted specialized devices that arguably better fit this use case. Many of these purpose-built devices offer features such as ease of disinfection, long battery life, multi-user/shared-device functionality, multi-factor authentication, high performance data capture capabilities, and other features that are critical requirements for healthcare organizations. Although helium remains an unlikely hazard, what happened at Morris Hospital underscores how healthcare environments pose significant demands on mobile devices.

View the 2018 Enterprise Mobility & Connected Devices Research Outline to learn more.

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