One day in early October, around 40 Apple phones, tablets, and watches belonging to staff at Morris Hospital in Illinois stopped working while a new magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine was being installed. The mysterious mass shut down had to do with how helium interacts with the devices’ microelectromechanical system.
A systems administrator at the hospital, Eric Woolridge was perplexed when his colleagues’ iPhones “seemed completely dead” that day, until he realized that the helium that’s boiled when installing the MRI could have something to do with it. Typically, the helium is released out of the facility through a vent. However, in this case, around 120 liters of helium had made its way throughout the halls of the hospital. He tested the helium on his on iPhone 8+ by putting it in a plastic bag and then leaking helium into it. In an uploaded video (that has now been removed), he opens up the stopwatch app, which starts to go haywire as it comes into contact with the helium, and then freezes around the eight-minute mark.
According to experts at iFixit, helium can ruin the iPhone’s MEMS silicon chips, which are the microelectromechanical systems that propel the device’s gyroscopes and accelerometers. Androids also run on MEMS, but helium doesn’t mess with its systems because they’re made from quartz oscillators, which are crystals that can be found in nearly every kind of electronic device.
Up until recently, Apple products also contained the quartz-based chips, but now all newer devices are made with silicon. Quartz chips struggle in high temperatures and the freezing cold, and are relatively large in size, which is why Apple made the switch to silicon, explains iFixit. Yet, the technology giant probably didn’t anticipate how the chips would fare in an helium-rich environment.