[Ben Krasnow] Gasses MEMS Chips, for Science

Why in the world does helium kill iPhones and other members of the Apple ecosystem? Enquiring minds want to know, and [Ben Krasnow] has obliged with an investigation of the culprit: the MEMS oscillator. (YouTube, embedded below.)

When we first heard about this, courtesy in part via a Hackaday post on MRI-killed iPhones, we couldn’t imagine how poisoning a micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) part could kill a phone. We’d always associated MEMS with accelerometers and gyros, important sensors in the smartphone suite, but hardly essential. It turns out there’s another MEMS component in many Apple products: an SiT 1532 oscillator, a tiny replacement for quartz crystal oscillators.

[Ben] got a few from DigiKey and put them through some tests in a DIY gas chamber. He found that a partial pressure of helium as low as 2 kPa, or just 2% of atmospheric pressure, can kill the oscillator. To understand why, and because [Ben] has a scanning electron microscope, he lapped down some spare MEMS oscillators to expose their intricate innards. His SEM images are stunning but perplexing, raising questions about how such things could be made which he also addresses.

The bottom line: helium poisons MEMS oscillators in low enough concentrations that the original MRI story is plausible. As a bonus, we now understand MEMS devices a bit better, and have one more reason never to own an iPhone.

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Helium can Stop Your iPhone — Maybe Other MEMS, Too

Sometimes hacking isn’t as much about building something, it’s about getting to the root of a particularly difficult problem. [Erik Wooldrige] was facing a problem like that. He’s a system specialist at a hospital near Chicago. Suddenly a bunch of iPhones and Apple watches were failing or glitching. The only thing anyone could think of was the recent install of an MRI machine.

Sure, an MRI machine can put out some serious electromagnetic pulses, but why would that only affect Apple products? Everything else in the hospital, including Android phones, seemed to be OK. But about 40 Apple devices were either dead or misbehaving.

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Scotty Allen Builds A USB Drive From An iPhone

What happens when you come across a mysterious, partially populated circuit board in the Huaqiangbei electronics market in Shenzhen? If you’re [Scotty Allen], the only answer is to make your own USB drive from iPhone parts.

[Scotty] made a name for himself through his YouTube channel Strange Parts where he built his own iPhone from scratch, added a headphone jack to an iPhone, and other various exploits involving hot air in Shenzhen. This latest build is no different. It begins with a random PCB [Scotty] found at the electronics market. It has a USB port on one end, it has pads for an iPhone memory chip, and it has an IC that looks like a USB to Flash converter.

The build involved finding a few broken iPhones, desoldering and reballing their Flash chips, and when those didn’t work, finding the correct Flash chips for this tiny little USB adapter board. Here, [Scotty] ran into trouble. The first Flash chip didn’t have the right pins, there was blue smoke, and the toolchain for initializing the USB to Flash IC was a mess.

In the end, [Scotty] managed to create a USB Flash drive after five or six visits to the electronics market, two stencils to reball Flash chips, and finding the OEM software for the USB to Flash chip on this very special PCB. That, itself, required Windows (the horror!), and finding the right version of the software.

Is this technically building a Flash drive purely from disposed iPhone components? We’d quibble. But is it a cool build, regardless? Absolutely. And the real story here is how quickly [Scotty] could iterate on his engineering. When the greatest electronics market is right around the corner, you can do anything with a microscope and a hot air gun.

The Ultimate iPhone Upgrade

While Apple products have their upsides, the major downside with them is their closed environment. Most of the products are difficult to upgrade, to say the least, and this is especially true with the iPhone. While some Android devices still have removable storage and replaceable batteries, this has never been an option for any of Apple’s phones. But that doesn’t mean that upgrading the memory inside the phone is completely impossible.

[Scotty] from [Strange Parts] is no stranger to the iPhone, and had heard that there are some shops that can remove the storage chip in the iPhone and replace it with a larger one so he set out on a journey to try this himself. The first step was to program the new chip, since they must have software on them before they’re put in the phone. The chip programmer ironically doesn’t have support for Mac, so [Scotty] had to go to the store to buy a Windows computer first before he could get the chip programmer working right.

After that hurdle, [Scotty] found a bunch of old logic boards from iPhones to perfect his desoldering and resoldering skills. Since this isn’t through-hole technology a lot of practice was needed to desolder the chip from the logic board without damaging any of the other components, then re-ball the solder on the logic board, and then re-soldering the new larger storage chip to the logic board. After some hiccups and a lot of time practicing, [Scotty] finally had an iPhone that he upgraded from 16 GB to 128 GB.

[Scotty] knows his way around the iPhone and has some other videos about other modifications he’s made to his personal phone. His videos are very informative, in-depth, and professionally done so they’re worth a watch even if you don’t plan on trying this upgrade yourself. Not all upgrades to Apple products are difficult and expensive, though. There is one that costs only a dollar.

We sat down with him after his talk at the Hackaday Superconference last November, and we have to say that he made us think more than twice about tackling the tiny computer that lies hidden inside a cell phone. Check out his talk if you haven’t yet.

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Scotty Allen Visits Strange Parts, Builds an iPhone

Scotty Allen has a YouTube blog called Strange Parts; maybe you’ve seen his super-popular video about building his own iPhone “from scratch”. It’s a great story, and it’s also a pretext for a slightly deeper dive into the electronics hardware manufacturing, assembly, and repair capital of the world: Shenzhen, China. After his talk at the 2017 Superconference, we got a chance to sit down with Scotty and ask about cellphones and his other travels. Check it out:

The Story of the Phone

Scotty was sitting around with friends, drinking in one of Shenzhen’s night markets, and talking about how bizarre some things seem to outsiders. There are people sitting on street corners, shucking cellphones like you’d shuck oysters, and harvesting the good parts inside. Electronics parts, new and used, don’t come from somewhere far away and there’s no mail-ordering. A ten-minute walk over to the markets will get you everything you need. The desire to explain some small part of this alternate reality to outsiders was what drove Scotty to dig into China’s cellphone ecosystem.

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All Your iPhone Are Belong To Us

Apple’s commitment to customer privacy took the acid test after the San Bernadino shooting incident. Law enforcement demanded that Apple unlock the shooter’s phone, and Apple refused. Court cases ensued. Some people think that the need to protect the public outweighs the need for privacy. Some people think that once they can unlock one iPhone, it won’t stop there and that will be bad for everyone. This post isn’t about either of those positions. The FBI dropped their lawsuit against Apple. Why? They found an Israeli firm that would unlock the phone for about $5,000. In addition, Malwarebytes — a company that makes security software — reports that law enforcement can now buy a device that unlocks iPhones from a different company.

Little is known about how the device — from a company called Grayshift — works. However, Malwarebytes has some unverified data from an unnamed source. Of course, the exploit used to break the iPhone security is secret because if Apple knew about it, they’d fix it. That’s happened before with a device called IP-box that was widely used for nefarious purposes.

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Injection Molding iPhone Cases from Trash

We imagine you’ve heard this already, but waste plastic is a problem for the environment. We wrap nearly everything we buy, eat, or drink in plastic packaging, and yet very little of it ends up getting recycled. Worse, it doesn’t take a huge industrial process to melt down a lot of this plastic and reuse it, you can do it at home if you were so inclined. So why aren’t there more localized projects to turn all this plastic trash into usable items?

That the question that [Precious Plastic] asks, and by providing a centralized resource for individuals and communities looking to get into the plastic recycling game, they hope to put a dent in the worldwide plastic crisis. One of their latest projects is showing how plastic trash can be turned into functional iPhone cases with small-scale injection molding.

Pushing plastic into the mold

The video after the break goes into intricate detail about the process involved in creating the 3D CAD files necessary to make the injection molds. Even if you don’t plan on recycling milk jugs at home, the information and tips covered in the video are extremely helpful if you’ve ever contemplated having something injection molded. The video even demonstrates a neat feature in SolidWorks that lets you simulate how molten plastic will move through your mold to help check for problem areas.

Once you’ve designed your mold on the computer, you need to turn it into a physical object. If you’ve got a CNC capable of milling aluminum then you’re all set, but if not, you’ll need to outsource it. [Precious Plastic] found somebody to mill the molds through 3DHubs, though they mention in the video that asking around at local machine shops isn’t a bad idea either.

With the mold completed, all that’s left is to bolt the two sides together and inject the liquid plastic. Here [Precious Plastic] shows off a rather interesting approach where they attach the mold to a contraption that allows them to inject plastic with human power. Probably not something you’d want to do if you’re trying to make thousands of these cases, but it does show that you don’t necessarily need a high tech production facility to make good-looking injection molded parts.

This project reminds us of the tiles made of HDPE plastic with nothing more exotic than what you’d find in the average kitchen. Projects like these really drive home the idea that with the right hardware individuals can turn trash into usable products.

[via 3DHubs]

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