I love a parade. Every year on Thanksgiving, I can’t wait for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade to start. Fortunately, the missus prefers I stay out of the kitchen, which means I can watch the parade from the comfort of my recliner.
The sights and sounds of the marching bands, the floats and especially the balloons bring joy to my soul. Who couldn’t get excited by the sight of a giant Spongebob Squarepants, Snoopy or Frozen’s Olaf floating down 6th Avenue? I’d argue that these giant balloons are what people come to watch every year.
But, what happens if there’s not enough helium? During a helium shortage in 1958, when at the urging of the U.S. Government, Macy’s inflated the balloons with air and hoisted them on trucks with cranes for the journey down Broadway.
So, what exactly is helium and why is it so important?
Since I’m called the Gas Guy, I just may know a thing or two about helium.
Helium is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas. It’s created during the decay of radioactive elements deep underground and is collected along with natural gas. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s helium is produced as a waste product, collected while processing natural gas or producing liquefied natural gas. When a gas pocket containing economically recoverable amounts of helium is found, a well is drilled to release the gas. It then travels by pipeline to a processing plant where the helium is separated from the other gases.
Separating the helium from the natural gas and storing the helium can be quite expensive. And it can’t be artificially produced.
The United States maintains a Federal Helium Reserve just outside of Amarillo, Texas. This was started when our government realized helium’s value almost a century ago. By the 1970s, there were over 40 billion cubic feet of helium injected into porous rock 3,000 feet below the Earth’s surface. As demand rose, the government began selling off the reserve. That source is depleting and will no longer be the number one source for helium globally in the very near future. That’s right, we’ll have to import more helium from places like Qatar, Algeria and Russia to offset what we were once able to produce ourselves. You see, there are only so many “helium rich” places on earth to make it financially feasible to produce. This is why there are currently over 20 companies exploring different areas in North and South America trying to find those “helium rich” pockets and new ways to extract and produce helium.
Beyond filling balloons and blimps, helium is used for respiratory treatments as part of a heliox mixture (roughly 80/20 mixture of helium and oxygen). Also, in the medical industry, liquid helium is used to maintain the constant temperature of MRI superconducting magnets. Helium is also vital to our technology. The fiber optic cables that carry Internet and cable TVs have to be manufactured in a pure helium atmosphere to ensure air bubbles won’t get trapped inside the cables. The gas is also used in the production of semiconductor chips and computer hard drives. Helium filled hard drives are starting to replace air filled hard drives, due to their higher storage capacity and lower operating power usage.
Helium is also used as a shielding gas in welding, offering a higher heat transfer for more consistent welds. Other uses include airbag in vehicles, leak detection in a number of applications, helium-ion microscopes, and to clean rocket fuel tanks.
Party balloons account for just 8 percent of helium used each year. And speaking of party balloons, have you ever wondered why breathing in helium leads to the Alvin and the Chipmunks’ voice effects? It’s because sound waves travel faster through lighter gases like helium.
Up in the air
Back to the parade. Carrying over 300,000 cubic feet of helium, four tube trailers filled to 3,000 pounds per square inch roll into Manhattan the day before Thanksgiving. It takes 90 minutes to inflate the big balloons, which, on average, contain 12,000 cubic feet of helium, which is capable of lifting nearly 750 pounds.
It may not surprise you to learn it’s not cheap to fill those giant balloons with helium. Estimates put it at over $500,000 annually.
After the parade
When the parade is over, the balloons are deflated behind Macy’s. This takes just 15 minutes. Because recapturing the balloon’s helium is impossible, the gas is released back into our atmosphere.
Once the parade is over, I’m allowed back in the kitchen, but only then to sample the pistachio salad and set the table. There’s a lot to be thankful for on Thanksgiving!