Apple Devices Bricked By Helium Leak

Discussion in 'HardForum Tech News' started by AlphaAtlas, Oct 31, 2018.

  1. AlphaAtlas

    AlphaAtlas [H]ard|Gawd Staff Member

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    One day, when Erik Wooldridge was installing some GE MRI Machines at Morris Hospital, he started getting calls claiming that cell phones and Apple Watches the building weren't working. At first, he thought the MRI machine must have generated some kind of EMP, but other medical devices and Android phones were all working fine. As it turns out, the MRI machine leaked about "90,000 L of gaseous He", and it seeped into electronic devices as tiny Helium atoms tend to do. Unlike Android manufacturers, Apple uses MEMs oscillators as clock generators in their newer phones, which are more susceptible to "small-molecule gas" than quartz clock generators. Interestingly, both Apple and the oscillator manufacturer were already aware of the issue, as rare and bizarre as it may be. The full story is on the iFixit blog, and its a fascinating read.


    But quartz oscillators have some problems. They don't keep time as well at high (and low) temperatures, and they're a relatively large component- 1x3 mm or so. In their quest for smaller and smaller hardware, Apple has recently started using MEMS timing oscillators from a specialized company called SiTime to replace quartz components. A MEMS accelerometer under an electron microscope at 50 micrometer resolution. Specifically, they're using the SiT512, 'the world's smallest, lowest power 32 kHz oscillator.' And if the MEMS device was susceptible to helium intrusion, that could be our culprit! A failing oscillator would match Erik's symptoms, which he reproduced in an experiment. "I placed an iPhone 8 Plus in a sealed bag and filled it with helium. This wasn't incredibly realistic, as the original iPhones would have been exposed to a much lower concentration, but it still supports the idea that helium can disable the device. In the video I leave the display on and running a stopwatch for the duration of the test. Around 8 minutes and 20 seconds in the phone locks up. Nothing crazy really happens. The clock just stops, and nothing else. The display did stay on though."
     
  2. N4CR

    N4CR 2[H]4U

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    Why on earth would they use MEMs over crystal?
     
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  3. TrailRunner

    TrailRunner Limp Gawd

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    Because:
     
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  4. N4CR

    N4CR 2[H]4U

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    You now have to seal something from Helium ingression. Or temperature control a crystal.. one is cheaper, easier, more reliable and a tiny bit larger.
    MEMs for this application seems a little silly. It's not some military grade hardware..

    edit: point is the thinner/lighter with conventional tech isn't working when you start having weird caveats like this. It gets rid of basic functionality e.g. headphones jack and sd card etc for a 1mm thinner phone. If you saw the size of a headphones jack module in a phone, they are absolutely tiny already.
     
  5. Unter Dog

    Unter Dog Limp Gawd

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    Looked up a random clock 32.768KHz Epson Seiko xtal in our system and it was specified as (-0.04*10^-6)/(degC^2) with a 3 ppm per year drift coefficient. Looked up a mems and it was 100ppm and cost more. Consumer electronics must use some trash XTALs
     
  6. kju1

    kju1 2[H]4U

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    Progress.
     
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  7. Esso

    Esso Limp Gawd

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    It also made Siri's voice higher pitched ;)
     
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  8. BrotherMichigan

    BrotherMichigan [H]Lite

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    What I want to know is who got fired for losing 120L of Helium? That stuff isn't cheap anymore.
     
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  9. NMR Guy

    NMR Guy Limp Gawd

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    This is interesting. I do at least six NMR magnet fills with liquid helium a year, and my 4 year old iPhone 6 still works fine. It's company issued, so if it would just suck in a little more helium then maybe they'd finally refresh it :-p

    It's possible that the air handler in the building where the described incident occurred was not functioning properly. For a standard, mid-field NMR magnet you will typically go through about 400 liters of *liquid* helium as you energize a new magnet, and most of that liquid helium will end up as vented helium gas. MRI magnets probably use a similar amount, I'd guess. So if the air handler does not have the capacity to exchange the air int he room fast enough, or the ventilation is set up wrong and it dumps the vented in in the room next door, the helium concentration can climb significantly.
     
  10. viper1152012

    viper1152012 [H]ard|Gawd

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    So 1000$ leak detectors. Interesting sales pitch.

    I wonder how much that cost in dead phones
     
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  11. nutzo

    nutzo [H]ardness Supreme

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    So if you are mad at someone with a newer iPhone, just buy them some leaky helium balloons?
     
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  12. Darth Ender

    Darth Ender Limp Gawd

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    Why is the helium vented to the atmosphere and not re-compressed (perhaps not to the compression level it was originally but enough to store it practically) and then shipped back to the helium supplier to be recycled? This should work similar to an AC system ....which simply re-cycles a fixed amount of coolant over and over. You might have to outsource the compression since most places wouldn't want to maintain that machinery but the general idea is the same and storage shouldn't be any more exotic than the storage tanks the helium was delivered in. (only more of them since you probably wouldn't be compressing it to similar pressures)
     
  13. BrotherMichigan

    BrotherMichigan [H]Lite

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    On-site Helium reclamation systems are a thing, and not an uncommon one at that. Anyone still venting Helium to the atmosphere isn't making a great financial decision.
     
  14. gunbust3r

    gunbust3r Gawd

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    FIFY: Courage
     
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  15. gunbust3r

    gunbust3r Gawd

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    Well now I know a new market, sticker dots that change color in the presence of helium. Sell them to apple so they can flip you the bird on warranty repair like they do with the water detection dots that turn in high humidity.
     
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  16. NMR Guy

    NMR Guy Limp Gawd

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    In the vast majority of cases, it is much cheaper to vent the helium. I totally get that seems crazy, given the high cost of liquid helium and the finite supply, but that's how the numbers work out for those of us running NMR facilities.

    There are two different situations.
    (1) When installing an NMR or MRI magnet, you need to energize the magnet and also cool the superconducting wire down to liquid helium temperatures. You are going to have a lot of rapid boil off of the helium during this procedure, and there is no way to easily capture most of the helium that boils off.
    (2) After installation, there are some magnet systems that do capture the helium boil off and compress it to very cool helium gas (but not liquid He), which is then recirculated back to the magnet. To do this you need a water-chilled 10,000 W compressor. If the compressor goes down, you have a week or two to get it fixed or your magnet may quench. More importantly, at least for NMR systems, it is much cheaper to just vent the helium and buy a 100 L of liq helium every 6 months. The energy cost from the compressors and the high price of magnets equipped with helium capture systems makes capturing the helium much more expensive. Sources inside Bruker tell me they are discontinuing their magnets that are designed for helium re-capture. They cost too much, they are a maintenance headache, and no one buys them.

    For MRI systems the costs might be different, especially if they can't afford a day of down time once every 3 to 6 months to do a helium fill.

    Eventually, helium will get expensive enough to make it worthwhile to re-capture. But the cost of helium would have to go *way* up. Alternatively, if they can get the superconductor temperatures up to liquid nitrogen levels, then we wouldn't need the helium.
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2018
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  17. Darth Ender

    Darth Ender Limp Gawd

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    I wasn't thinking of re-using the helium right on-site. But if you're venting helium, you have the pure gas (prior to actually releasing to the atmosphere)...why not pump it back into a tank at say 1/2 the pressure it was originally stored at using twice the number of tanks used to deliver it in (more or less). Then when new helium is delivered, they can take the old helium and do all the high pressure cold-temp compression off-site where they do that job 24/7.

    Seems like the supplier would have a much easier job of producing liquid helium from that used gas than they would by acquiring it any other way.
     
  18. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics I don't get it

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    So how much is 90,000 liters presumably at 1ATM versus say a helium filled balloon (which is considerably higher than 1 ATM), was it a high enough concentration that people talked a bit funny? Or was it "trace amounts" that fucked up $1000 phones and tablets?
     
  19. DrBorg

    DrBorg Gawd

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    I worked with MR systems; the big red button on the wall was known as the $50,000 button. :)

    God help you if you pressed it, and no one was stuck to the magnet.

    (It purges the He fill, making the magnetic field go away; it's not a good thing for the magnet or the environment)

    Helium will go straight thru most materials; a "calibrated leak" for Helium uses Glass or Teflon as the permeable membrane, and special stainless to keep it in.

    A mems device has as one of its operating parameters the medium it's vibrating in, add Helium, and it moves easier, raising the frequency above where the drive electronics want it to be, so it quits.

    They use 32kHz crystals or mems devices, so the crystal devices are large, relatively.

    The crystal frequency is inversely proportional to Xtal size, while the mems is proportional to the stiffness vs weight of the floating platform.

    Look inside any cheap digital clock, you'll see a small metal tube about 1/4" long, 1/16" diameter. That's the crystal.

    A mems device is an 0201 package SMT, last one I used. (0.020"x0.010")

    I can hand solder those. (Using a stereo microscope, lol.)



    BTW, Vacuum tubes are susceptible to Helium incursion; put a garbage bag over your buddy's (enemy's) vintage tube amp, and fill it with helium from balloons over the weekend.

    It will make this cool looking orange glow inside all the tubes, as it eats the power supplies. :)

    All you can do is replace the tubes. (And fix the damaged power section. :D

    Yes, I read Phrack back in the day, lol.

    1 liter of liquid He is 73 liters at room temp.
     
    Last edited: Oct 31, 2018
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  20. DrBorg

    DrBorg Gawd

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    All the helium we have in storage is from the 20's and 30's when we recovered it from natural gas wells for blimps for the military.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Helium_Reserve

    We can recover all we want from that source Now, if we wish, we just don't.

    When it's profitable, we will again.
     
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  21. clockdogg

    clockdogg Gawd

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    Now I know why our hipster Xphone'd party balloon coordinator wasn't answering my calls. Just the cute squeaky voice answering message. Need to get her an unlocked droid and a landline. :p
     
  22. cyclone3d

    cyclone3d [H]ardForum Junkie

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    I say let's go throw a lot of birthday parties at the Apple stores.

    Then "accidentally" pop all the Helium balloons.

    Watch as hilarity ensues!

    :ROFLMAO:
     
  23. sfsuphysics

    sfsuphysics I don't get it

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    Nah, fill up balloons on site, then just leave the tank valve open just a smidge :D

    Although I have to say, having a little portable helium tank and randomly squirting annoying iphone users, they won't know the difference especially on crowded subway/buses until the phone stopped working
     
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  24. ZiggyDeath

    ZiggyDeath Limp Gawd

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    Unfortunately if you looked at his testing, it takes about 8 minutes in a bag to do the trick.

    You could brick an acquaintance's phone in a quick bathroom run though.
     
  25. aokman

    aokman Gawd

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    It doesnt kill them, the Helium just needs to dissipate.
     
  26. ChoGGi

    ChoGGi [H]ard|Gawd

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    going by the end of the ifixit article: 0
    Edit: well dang, quick on that click aokman
     
  27. aokman

    aokman Gawd

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    I did click on that link... the devices start working once the Helium is allowed to clear, blasting the device with compressed air would probably speed it up.
     
  28. ChoGGi

    ChoGGi [H]ard|Gawd

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    I meant the post reply click, but that works too :)
     
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  29. Megaslug

    Megaslug Limp Gawd

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    Ovenizing a quartz crystal for temperature stability is not small, cheap, or easy. It's not an alternative to using MEMS components, not at all.
     
  30. Dr. Righteous

    Dr. Righteous 2[H]4U

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    This all seems kind of bizarre since helium is naturally occurring in the atmosphere. A small amount, but it is there.
     
  31. kju1

    kju1 2[H]4U

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    Helium is naturally only about 18 ppm in standard atmo. In other words the likely hood of a helium particle infiltrating the mems in standard atmo is fairly low. Especially not in any concentration sufficient to cause a more than a momentary disruption.
     
  32. gunbust3r

    gunbust3r Gawd

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    Envisioning AppleCare buyers putting a stop at party city right next to the calendar reminder for say day 700 post purchase...