Helium: It gives NYC's Thanksgiving parade a lift

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Helium: It gives NYC's Thanksgiving parade a lift
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Pillsbury Doughboy balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Papa Smurf balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Adventure Time balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: How To Train Your Dragon balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: The Wizard Of Oz balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Lindt float -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Paul Frank balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Snoopy and Woodstock balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Sonic the hedgehog balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
MACY'S THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE -- Season 87 -- Pictured: Diary of a Wimpy Kid balloon -- (Photo by: Eric Leibowitz/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
[UNVERIFIED CONTENT] Spiderman floats down 6th Ave in the 2013 Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: The Wizard of Oz balloon floats over the streets during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: A giant Uncle Sam balloon floats over the streets during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: General view of atmosphere at the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Lindt Chocolate float during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: A clown rides a bicycle float during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: The Elf on the Shelf balloon floats over the streets during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: General view of atmosphere at the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: The Papa Smurf balloon floats over the streets during the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: General view of atmosphere at the 87th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Cem Ozdel/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: General View of atmosphere at the 87th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Pont/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Atmosphere at the 87th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Atmosphere at the 87th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on November 28, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bobby Bank/WireImage)
2013 - A police officer stands on Sixth Avenue as a giant fireman balloon passes during the 87th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A performer walks on stilts in front of a balloon during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SABAN BRANDS - Measuring 41-feet tall, 65-feet long and 39-feet wide, Paul Frank's Julius the monkey flies through New York City as one of the largest balloons during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision for Saban Brands/AP Images)
IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR SABAN BRANDS - Saban's Power Rangers Super Megaforce walk alongside the Earth balloon, ready to save the world during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City on Thursday, Nov. 28, 2013, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision for Saban Brands/AP Images)
The Kung Fu Panda balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Harold the Policeman balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Kermit the Frog balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Hello Kitty balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Charlie Brown balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Sailor Mickey balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Ronald McDonald balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Pikachu balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Tim Burton's B. Boy balloon floats in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
The Yes, Virginia balloon drifts toward some trees during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Sykes)
Members of the New York Police Department stand by as the Shrek balloon makes it's way across 42nd Street during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
The Buzz Lightyear balloon floats through Times Square during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
The Kaikai and Kiki balloons designed by Japanese artist Takashi Murakami make their way across 42nd Street during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on Thursday Nov. 25, 2010 in New York. (AP Photo/Tina Fineberg)
The Smurf balloon floats through Times Square during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
The Snoopy balloon floats through Times Square during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
The Dora the Explorer float is guided across Central Park South during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
The Dora the Explorer float is guided across Central Park South during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 26, 2009 in New York. For the first time in its more than 80-year history, the parade route is bypassing Broadway, which cuts a diagonal slice through Manhattan, as it makes its way south from the Upper West Side to the finish at Macy's flagship store in Herald Square. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
The Horton float moves through Times Square during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 27, 2008, in New York. Horton, the compassionate elephant of Dr. Seuss books, is new to the parade this year. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
The Scooby Doo balloon floats down Broadway during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2007. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
A Snowman balloon floats down Broadway in the rain during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
The Mr. Potato Head balloon floats down Broadway in the rain during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 23, 2006. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
The "Chicken Little" balloon floats down Broadway during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in New York, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2005. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
** FILE ** Ask Jeeves character baloon is paraded down Broadway through Times Square during the 78th Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 25, 2004 in New York. Barry Diller's electronic-commerce company IAC/InterActiveCorp is buying Ask Jeeves Inc., the Web-search service, for $1.85 billion, the companies announced Monday, March 21, 2005.(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Clifford the Big Red Dog balloon floats its way down New York's Broadway during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade Thursday Nov. 27, 2003, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
"Barney" the float makes it's way down the parade route during New York's 72nd Annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 26, 1998. Despite wind gusts to around 30 mph, the parade's trademark giant balloons were in the line of march being guided under new safety rules to prevent accidents like that one that seriously injured a spectator last year. (AP Photo/Lynsey Addario)
Balloons of "Garfield," and the "Honey Nut Cheerios Bee," right, participate in the 73rd annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 25, 1999, in New York's Times Square. "Garfield" is actually the "senior" balloon in the parade and the "Honey Nut Cheerios Bee," sponsored by General Mills, is making its parade debut. (AP Photo/Suzanne Plunkett)
Crowds watch as Blue leads greendog down Broadway during the 74th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Thursday, Nov. 23, 2000. (AP Photo/Robert Mecea)
A Cheesasaurus Rex balloon carrying a camera and wearing an NYPD cap floats down Broadway during the 75th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2001, in New York (AP Photo/Beth Keiser)
The Arthur balloon makes its way down Broadway during the 75th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade Thursday, Nov. 22, 2001, in New York. There was a big display of patriotism as the parade kicked off in relatively warm weather compared with last year's freezing temperatures. (AP Photo/Beth Keiser)
Three of the new balloons for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, from left, the Rugrats, the aardvark Arthur and the Swedish cow Bumpe, float above an athletic field on the campus of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., Saturday, Nov. 8, 1997. The new balloons will join the 71st annual Macy's Parade in New York City on Thanksgiving Day. (AP Photo/Mike Derer)
The Pink Panther, a new addition to the cast of balloon characters in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, floats above Broadway in New York City, Thursday, Nov. 24, 1988. (AP Photo/Chuck Wenzelberg)
Betty Boop collapses on Broadway near 49th Street as handlers work to raise the deflated helium balloon during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, Thursday, Nov. 27, 1986. Betty Boop, the last balloon in the parade, could not finish the parade. (AP Photo/Ron Frehm)
Bart Simpson is carefully handled as the helium balloon splits a seam on Broadway at 55th Street in the 67th annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City, Thursday, Nov. 25, 1993. Several balloons had problems as a result of the windy weather and chilly conditions. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
1940 - In this 1940 handout photo, a helium inflated Superman rises over Times Square to lead the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1940. According to Macy's, in 1929, a newly added safety valve allowed helium to slowly seep out of the balloons as they floated above the city's streets. (AP Photo/File)
A huge balloon in the form of comic fireman floats over Broadway during the annual Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York, Nov. 25, 1948. Thousands jammed the streets to watch .(AP Photo/John Rooney)
1959 - A helium-filled Popeye balloon participates in the 33rd Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in Times Square, New York, on Nov. 26, 1959. An estimated 1.3 million people watched the parade in 1959. (AP Photo/File)
Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade 2012
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NEW YORK (AP) - It'll never rank up there with turkey and pumpkin pie, but for millions of Americans the Thanksgiving experience just wouldn't be the same without ... helium.

For 364 days of the year, the colorless and odorless gas works quietly behind the scenes, doing jobs like chilling magnets in MRI imaging machines and helping welders protect their work from impurities.

But on Thanksgiving, the lighter-than-air element moves onto a much bigger stage. It's the stuff that makes Snoopy, Spider-Man, Papa Smurf and other huge balloons sail high above the crowd at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

Just so we can be properly thankful for the second most abundant element in the universe (it ranks behind hydrogen), we turned for some basic facts to Eric Bass. He is product manager for helium at Linde North America Inc. This week, for the 20th straight year, his company will supply the gas to the parade, which in turn is marking its 88th year.

WHERE DOES THE PARADE HELIUM COME FROM?

It forms underground and tends to mingle with natural gas deposits. So when companies extract and process the natural gas, they separate out the helium and sell it to companies like Linde. Helium is shipped worldwide, so the stuff that will pump up Paddington Bear or Pikachu could come from as close as Kansas or Wyoming, or as far away as Qatar, Africa or even Australia.

HOW DOES IT GET TO THE PARADE?

First, the gas is chilled to make it a liquid so it's easier to transport. Huge, specialized containers of the stuff are shipped to a plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Gas floats above the liquid in these containers; this gas is drawn off and compressed. The gas is loaded into heavy steel tubes, and 10 to 12 tubes are put on each of four flatbed trucks. The day before the parade, the trucks drive into Manhattan for the inflating of the parade balloons. Crews fill the balloons with long hoses, topping them off on parade day.

HOW MUCH HELIUM IS NEEDED?

Enough to fill 600,000 to 700,000 Mylar party balloons. But the parade helium is 99.999 percent pure, whereas the stuff in a party balloon might be only 97.5 percent pure.

HOW BIG ARE THE BALLOONS?

They come in a variety of sizes. According to Macy's, Snoopy is as tall as a three-story building, as long as 11 bicycles and as wide as five taxi cabs. The big balloons are made up of multiple chambers that are inflated individually.

WHAT HAPPENS TO THE HELIUM AFTER THE PARADE?

It escapes to the atmosphere as the balloons are deflated. In 2008, Linde tried recycling some of the gas by withdrawing it through tubes put into some of the balloons. But Bass said the process was expensive, and there wasn't enough time to recover most of the gas before the streets had to be cleared for traffic.

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