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There have been a bunch of exciting new green energy developments that are real breakthroughs that could solve our energy and climate crisis.  Or at least they look like they could have been real breakthroughs.  Let's get right to it.  

The most gamechanging one first.  The big problem with generating clean energy is how to store it, because you don't get to decide when the sun is shining.  A breakthrough on that:

Major discovery' from MIT primed to unleash solar revolution:

In a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal, boutique alternative into a mainstream energy source, MIT researchers have overcome a major barrier to large-scale solar power: storing energy for use when the sun doesn't shine.

Until now, solar power has been a daytime-only energy source, because storing extra solar energy for later use is prohibitively expensive and grossly inefficient. With today's announcement, MIT researchers have hit upon a simple, inexpensive, highly efficient process for storing solar energy.

Requiring nothing but abundant, non-toxic natural materials, this discovery could unlock the most potent, carbon-free energy source of all: the sun. "This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said MIT's Daniel Nocera, the Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy at MIT and senior author of a paper describing the work in the July 31 issue of Science. "Solar power has always been a limited, far-off solution. Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

But not all systems are perfectly efficient and many waste heat in a variety of ways.  A breakthrough on that solves that problem:

Device could convert waste heat into electricity:

An MIT scientist and a colleague have invented a semiconductor technology that could allow efficient, affordable production of electricity from a variety of energy sources--including waste heat--without a turbine or similar generator... The new technology could have major implications for the recovery of waste heat from power plants and automobiles.

Many researchers have worked to convert heat to electricity directly without using the moving parts of a generator. Among other advantages, such a device would be virtually silent, vibration-free and low in maintenance costs. Until now, however, the efficiency of such devices has been a problem. The amount of electricity they produce from a given amount of energy has been low.

There's been talk about getting off of foreign oil, but year after year, president after president we still rely upon oil that's pumped out of the ground all over the world and shipped in by the millions of barrels per day.  This invention can solve that problem by creating biofuel in an ingenous way:

MIT device could lead to near-term environmental improvements for cars:

MIT engineers and colleagues are perfecting a device that could turn that foodstuff and various "biocrude" oils into fuel that could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil and decrease emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The same device could also significantly reduce the amount of smog-producing pollutants generated by vehicles running on traditional fuels.

All that from a contraption the researchers believe will be relatively inexpensive--only a few percent of the cost of a car or truck. They also believe that it could be introduced into present vehicle technology with only minor modifications, and that it will only need to be replaced a few times over the lifetime of a vehicle.

Essentially the device, which is about the size of a large soup can, works as an onboard "oil refinery." It converts a wide variety of fuels into high-quality hydrogen-rich gas.

We think of oil rigs as bad things.  And they are.  But what about using them as an inspiration to design something new that can provide tons of clean energy?  To not leave wind power out, there was a cool new idea they developed using oil rigs as inspiration.

Deep-sea oil rigs inspire MIT designs for giant wind turbines:

An MIT researcher has a vision: Four hundred huge offshore wind turbines are providing onshore customers with enough electricity to power several hundred thousand homes, and nobody standing onshore can see them. The trick? The wind turbines are floating on platforms a hundred miles out to sea, where the winds are strong and steady.

Paul D. Sclavounos, a professor of mechanical engineering and naval architecture, has spent decades designing and analyzing large floating structures for deep-sea oil and gas exploration. Observing the wind-farm controversies, he thought, "Wait a minute. Why can't we simply take those windmills and put them on floaters and move them farther offshore, where there's plenty of space and lots of wind?"

...he and his MIT colleagues teamed up with wind-turbine experts from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to integrate a wind turbine with a floater.

Ok, an update.  If you look up these stories, you'll note that they're from at least a few years ago, and one of them is from 15 years ago.  We've been seeing stories like them for years.  Has anything changed?  Not really: that's my worry here.

The problem is that there's a combination of a desperate hope for solutions to the global energy and climate predicament, and an interest in those who make small steps from overstating their case.  Nobody likes to hear the hard news that small research breakthroughs, while absolutely valuable and worth pursuing, do very little in the scheme of things.  So I'm torn.  I'd like to see these things happen, but time is ticking away...

This raises a challenge for the community - both of researchers and of people who want to see climate and energy solutions: it's up to us to realistically evaluate the options we have now, and if these research projects come through, then they come through, but we should be prepared for them not to.

Let's look at what we'd need to overcome to get these research ideas to the real world.  It's all do-able, but it's hard, and it's why we haven't seen it happen quite yet.  Here's a bit I wrote about it a long time ago:

I'm going to survey the challenges for alternative energy David Fridley's excellent article considers in turn.

First, Fridley points out that there are two broad classes of alternatives:

"Alternative energy" generally falls into two categories:
  • Substitutes for existing petroleum liquids (ethanol, biodiesel, biobutanol, dimethyl ether, coal-to-liquids, tar sands, oil shale), both from biomass and fossil feedstocks.
  • Alternatives for the generation of electric power, including power-storage technologies (wind, solar photovoltaics, solar thermal, tidal, biomass, fuel cells, batteries).

The pitfalls alternatives face are as follows:

1. Scalability and Timing.

For the promise of an alternative energy source to be achieved, it must be supplied in the time frame needed, in the volume needed, and at a reasonable cost.

Fridley goes on to observe how many alternative energy projects currently hailed as great options are only producing on a small scale - not nearly at the scale of production required.  Timing is important as well - many of these production facilities, while they're scaling up fast, will still take decades to reach the production capacity that we'd need today if we're to make a transition in time.

2. Commercialization.

Closely related to the issue of scalability and timing is commercialization, or the question of how far away a proposed alternative energy source stands from being fully commercialized.

Many projects we hear about - especially in the excitable tech press - are often still research projects.  Commercializing energy technology typically takes many years if not decades, and building up production capacity to useful levels takes many years more.

3. Substitutability.

Ideally, an alternative energy form would integrate directly into the current energy system as a "drop-in" substitute for an existing form without requiring fur- ther infrastructure changes. This is rarely the case, and the lack of substitutability is particularly pronounced in the case of the electrification of transportation, such as with electric vehicles.

Almost none of the alternatives typically discussed provides a dense liquid fuel substitute for oil that can be used in transportation or agriculture.  The net-energy-positive alternative that does - algae-based biofuel - is extremely far from commercial viability and requires even more land area per unit energy than corn-based ethanol.

4. Material Input Requirements.

Unlike what is generally assumed, the input to an alter- native energy process is not money per se: It is resources and energy, and the type and volume of the resources and energy needed may in turn limit the scalability and affect the cost and feasibility of an alternative.

Given the scarcity of rare earths and other minerals that go into manufacturing of solar PV, wind turbines, etc. Fridley points out that if we were to scale up production even at the rate currently projected today (not even the rate that we actually would need to make a transition to alternatives), we'd be well beyond the supply of these minerals.  Also, fossil fuels are currently providing an invisible energy subsidy to alternative energy production, and that subsidy will steadily go away as oil depletes.

5. Intermittency.

Modern societies expect that electrons will flow when a switch is flipped, that gas will flow when a knob is turned, and that liquids will flow when the pump handle is squeezed. This system of continuous supply is possible because of our exploitation of large stores of fossil fuels, which are the result of millions of years of intermittent sunlight concentrated into a continuously extractable source of energy.

What happens when the sun isn't shining, the wind isn't blowing, or there's a drought that cripples hydroelectric production?

These aren't insurmountable challenges, but they require a large investment in energy storage, which itself is expensive.  (One of the reasons I particularly like solar thermal is that it's the easiest to use for low-tech molten salt storage.)

6. Energy Density.

The consequence of low energy density is that larger amounts of material or resources are needed to provide the same amount of energy as a denser material or fuel. Many alternative energies and storage technologies are characterized by low energy densities, and their deployment will result in higher levels of resource consumption.

Nothing comes close to liquid fuels.

7. Water.

Water ranks with energy as a potential source of con- flict among peoples and nations, but a number of alternative energy sources, primarily biomass-based energy, are large water consumers critically dependent on a dependable water supply.

Fridley considers the water needs of various biofuels and finds that they're far far above what we need for current liquid fuels production per gallon of fuel output.  Given that aquifer depletion is bad enough now that it's detectable from space, using biofuels would quickly run into water challenges.

8. The Law of Receding Horizons.

An often-cited metric of the viability of alternatives is the expected break-even cost of the alternative with oil, or the price that crude oil would have to be to make the alternative cost competitive. Underlying this calculation, however, is an assumption that the input costs to alternative energy production would remain static as oil prices rise, thereby providing the economic incentive to development.

In other words, as peak oil exacerbates boom-bust economic cycles and overall puts an end to economic growth, it will be difficult to steadily continue building alternatives despite economic fluctuations.  At oil price troughs it will be hard to justify building alternatives due to price, and at peaks the input costs of fossil fuels will make alternatives more expensive than they otherwise would have been.  Efforts to mitigate this, such as feed-in tariffs are worth implementing, but it is difficult for governments to always keep their promises on these guarantees.

9. Energy Return on Investment.

The complexity of our economy and society is a func- tion of the amount of net energy we have available. "Net energy" is, simply, the amount of energy remaining after we consume energy to produce energy. Consuming energy to produce energy is unavoidable, but only that which is not consumed to produce energy is available to sustain our industrial, transport, residential, commercial, agricultural, and military activities. The ratio of the amount of energy we put into energy production and the amount of energy we produce is called "energy return on investment" (EROI).

By all indications our biofuel options are well below the needed EROI to make them worthwhile, while alternatives for electricity generation have decent EROI.

In summary, when considering any possible transition program to alternatives, we need to consider all of the above pitfalls and examine how to avoid them.  To my knowledge, none of the various proposed transitions to alternatives address them all.  But maybe they will in much time do we have, though?

Until next time...

Originally posted to barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 09:36 AM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, DK GreenRoots, and Climate Hawks.

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Comment Preferences

  •  kick ass! (8+ / 0-)

    i do so love the sound of "solar revolution."

    enthusiastically tipped and rec'd.

    My goal is to make the world safe for anarchy. - 4Freedom

    by Cedwyn on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 09:44:09 AM PST

  •  Reposted to SciTech (5+ / 0-)

    I hope you have  no objection.

    •  really? this is a damned fluff piece (0+ / 0-)

      where are the details?

      * A promise of solar power that can produce when the sun isn't shining, delivered via a "semiconductor-based device to convert heat into electricity".  Leaving aside how the problem with solar heat energy is not converting heat to electricity but how costly it is to gather heat from the sun compared to other sources, it would be nice to see something more about a new device to turn heat into electricity.  Currently, thermocouples are used in deep space RTGs, and also on Earth for thermoelectric cooling.

      From the link, it's a low temperature thermionic device.  Clever, and claimed to be twice as good as its next best competitor.  It's important, but not as a solar power breakthrough, since the state of the art in solid-state heat engines is so far behind the regular kind.

      * Something I can't make heads or tails of with buzzwords like "biocrude", somehow it at once makes synthetic oil and at the same time provides hydrogen.  Actually, it says "hydrogen-rich gas", which I guess could mean hydrocarbons.

      * Talk of ways to set up floating wind turbines in deep water.  This is the kind of thing a high-school kid could draw as a term paper.  It does not address the reason wind turbines are an inefficient use of resources is that with current materials they have to use so much materials.

      Global warming is the inconvenient truth, nuclear power is the inconvenient alternative.

      by eigenlambda on Mon Feb 06, 2012 at 07:22:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great for the Planet. For Me, Sadly I Don't Care (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cedwyn, marleycat, thomask

    what kind of technology we buy from 3rd world manufacturers.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 09:48:27 AM PST

  •  Tipping in advance (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cedwyn, SanFernandoValleyMom

    links not working.  I'm so looking forward to having solar storage for my upstate crib.  

    Life is good. Injustice? Not so much.

    by westyny on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:10:17 AM PST

  •  yay MIT (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    yay Massachusetts

    *"Politics is like driving. To go backward put it in R. To go forward put it in D."*
    When I look at the economy, I think Obama can't win; when I look at the Republicons I think he can't lose. And the economy is getting better. h/t Paul Begala

    by TrueBlueMajority on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:31:57 AM PST

  •  A breakthrough from 2001? (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, Caj, FG

    Looking forward to other links.

    Dear Ayn Rand fans: Please, would each of you just go all John Galt, immediately? Thank you.

    by CitizenJoe on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:34:56 AM PST

    •  Exactly my point, unfortunately (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      A Siegel

      Just got back from the farmers market.  I just posted the update I didn't have time to write this morning. - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:36:08 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  No tip for you. (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        barath, implicate order, ChuckInReno

        Seriously misleading diary.

        I just saw the "update" that you were apparently adding at the same time that I was writing my previous comment. It appears that you knew all your citations were old, but chose to pretend otherwise.

        If you "didn't have time" to include the information needed to make the diary accurately reflect reality, seems to me it shouldn't have been posted until you did have the time to do that. What was the rush to get out this information, the newest of which is 4 years old?

        If I am misreading the situation, please correct me, but that's how it looks from here.

        "These are not candidates. These are the empty stand-ins for lobbyists' policies to be legislated later." - Chimpy, 9/24/10

        by NWTerriD on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:45:49 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You are correct. (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Written out of frustration about the two poles of false hope on one end and cynicism on the other, worry about the lack of realism about evaluating the options, etc.

          I in fact didn't have time to write it this morning, but I realized that maybe it was better that I didn't until now.  That was unkind of me, but maybe that's kind of the point?  I don't know.

 - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

          by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:54:44 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  I've met Mr. Nocera (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, FG

    and have worked for one of his former students. VERY charismatic. He has been promoting this work hard the last five years and I think it does have potential but will not be commercially available in the next 5-10 years. It's tough to put my finger on why but many academics have been very critical of what they see as self-promotion behind the hype he generated with the initial discovery of the cobalt water splitting catalyst.

  •  This is all VERY old information. (9+ / 0-)

    Note the dates of the articles.

    Solar storage: 2008

    Converting waste heat into electricity: 2001

    Biocrude oil device for cars: 1997 (!)

    Offshore wind turbines: 2006

    I am as enthusiastic about alternate energy technologies as anyone, and I beileve if we just took the federal money that is subsidizing fossil fuels and moved it to subsidizing the development of clean energy we could eliminate fossil fuels within a couple of decades. But the articles cited in the diary are not evidence of any current game-changing breakthroughs.

    "These are not candidates. These are the empty stand-ins for lobbyists' policies to be legislated later." - Chimpy, 9/24/10

    by NWTerriD on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:38:17 AM PST

  •  Added 'snark' tag. Diarist makes a valid pt; but.. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, NWTerriD, Odysseus, A Siegel

    ...I wish you would re-edit the diary to more clearly reflect what you are trying to say.

    Or at least what I understand your message is.

    Namely: 1. the tech already exists for making serious breakthroughs, it's the political/economic will that is lacking here in America.

    and 2. Because of this, tech and "green" people try to shake others out of their apathy by often-overtrumped headlines.

    But isn't this precisely what you are doing here?

    •  Yeah, I was torn in posting this. (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Odysseus, Assaf

      In a weird sense, I was trying to reflect both sides of my thinking on this:

      1. There have been things that look like game-changers, and they're announced all the time.  And we desperately need them.

      2. They usually aren't evaluated in the full scope of the scale required to make a real impact.

      I get worried when we as a community, and as a nation lean too heavily either on (perhaps unrealistic) hope or on (unproductive / counterproductive) cynicism.  We need something in the middle, which might be 'realism', though I don't know. - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:45:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  For decades, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    We've been seeing a constant stream of these energy "breakthroughs".

    Then we never hear of them again.

    GOP: Bankers, billionaires, suckers, and dupes.

    by gzodik on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 10:46:08 AM PST

  •  Way to suck me in! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, offgrid, SolarMom, PrahaPartizan

    Well done Barath!!

    I follow the story of renewables VERY closely and the idea that M.I.T. was doing breakthrough research intrigued me because from my vantage point, they have been pretty much AWOL on all of this.  Your examples illustrate perfectly why the renewables train is likely to pass by USA (see Solyndra).  Like you admit yourself, this is all old news—there are people WAY ahead of this in several parts of the world.

    Of course, M.I.T. has been missing in action since USA proved it could go to the moon without its help.  Couldn't have done it without Perdue or Michigan or a host of other places where engineering is still taken seriously.  But already by the 1960s, M.I.T. had become a place that mostly ran on security-state Cold War contracts and actual engineering be damned.

    Here's the deal.  A lot of the science in renewables is well known and so any successful introduction of renewables comes down to execution.  Want to put a wind farm off shore?  You better know how to make some really interesting steel that will not lose its strength in a device generating electricity in a salt-water environment—and a thousand other examples.

    There are still places for basic research in renewables—the two biggies being transmission and storage.  The kid who figures out super-conducting transmission lines will be more famous than Edison.  So even though M.I.T. thinks they are too lofty to worry about blocking and tackling, they still could do THIS.

    BTW, if you are really interested in the problems encountered in any conversion to renewables, you should be reading the German press.  I especially like Der Spiegel.

    •  Thanks (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I feel bad leading with seemingly good news that isn't.  The point you make is exactly the right one.

      It comes down to execution, down to political and community support, down to overcoming the various boring but very real challenges I list above, etc.

      Other countries are leading us in this.  I think Germany and Sweden are on track to be energy independent in a decade or two (Sweden more than Germany, I think). - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 11:18:27 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Yawn, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    barath, Mr Robert

    FDR 9-23-33, "If we cannot do this one way, we will do it another way. But do it we will.

    by Roger Fox on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 11:26:30 AM PST

  •  More YAY Massachusetts (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    My former home town, Salem, is in the process of erecting their first municipally owned, utility-sized wind turbine on the site of a coal-fired power plant.  The city will sell the electricity to the local utility, and credit the revenue, after debt payments to a local bank, to the budgets of the town schools.

    Now the addition of off-shore, floating wind turbines off the Continental Shelf sounds fantastic.  Local bank funding, with revenues going directly into school coffers with no involvement by big government, big business or big banks is the path of the future.

    Good old Yankee ingenuity.  Fuck conservative gridlock.  We'll do it ourselves.

    "Never let up. Crush bigotry and greed."

    by LouisMartin on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 12:30:08 PM PST

  •  Republished.. (0+ / 0-) climate hawks and dkgreenroots.  Hope that's ok.

    It's hopeful stuff, even if not ready for prime time yet.

    “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.” -- FDR, 1936

    by SolarMom on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 01:21:42 PM PST

  •  Breakthroughs (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Whenever I read about a new energy breakthrough, I always think "that will take around a decade to get to the market."  If the lab results hold up, if the idea can move to production, if the production costs are not too much to bear, if there is a good business plan and management behind the new breakthrough, if, if, if.

    Don't hold your breath for any new energy breakthrough that you read or hear about on the news.  It may be good stuff but it's gonna take awhile to get here.

    Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

    by gmoke on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 02:40:37 PM PST

    •  Exactly (0+ / 0-)

      It's that realism that tends not to get conveyed in most articles / diaries on the subject.  And given that time is running short for a full-scale energy transition (running short because of climate change / peak oil), it seems that we need to better understand as a society that we're probably not going to smoothly transition to some gleaming green energy future unscathed. - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 02:45:15 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Unscathed (0+ / 0-)

        Well, a lot of damage has already been done but we could make a great, great difference in prospective damage with the technology we already have on the market and readily available.  We could do much more if we acted wisely with the tools we have.

        The gleaming green energy future is here and now if we only recognize the possibility and work steadfastly for it.

        Solar is civil defense. Video of my small scale solar experiments at solarray.

        by gmoke on Sun Feb 05, 2012 at 09:01:01 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  barath, do you live in/near Boston? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The MIT Energy Conference is next month, and admission to the first day showcase is free of charge.

    •  Sounds interesting (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Unfortunately I probably can't make it out there in March.

      Have you attended before? The thing I wonder about these sorts of events, just like analogous ones in the environmental world like the Aspen conference, is whether there's a healthy skepticism and understanding of issues such as the limits to growth, resource limits, etc.  Sometimes we engineers can get carried away and think we can "innovate" our way out of anything... - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sat Feb 04, 2012 at 05:09:14 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nice piece ... (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    FishOutofWater, barath, alizard

    however ...

    Perhaps even more explicit a "Stop Getting Excited About Lab Press Releases ..." statement would be merited in the intro.

    As I put it within the discussion of one of those breakout 'wow, a solution to everything' diaries

       While I have tremendous respect for MIT's faculty and students, and they often do amazing things, it is a huge task to move things from the laboratory to the real world with many trials and tribulations to come.

        Two days, in a row, MIT press releases have made it to the Daily Kos recommended list.

        If we would go back, through the DKos recommended list, and look for MIT press release material that has gotten excited attention as if it were going to solve the world's problems and we can all rest easy, we would be sadly disappointed in how little has moved from the press release to the store shelves.

        MIT's PR group is, like its scientists, top-notch -- we, however, should be viewing these press releases with far less excitement than they seem to create.

        When this is being deployed at Home Depot in systems to go on our roofs or has been crucial to a new -- low cost -- major solar plant that is being added to the grid, then it is time for this excited reaction.

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Sun Feb 05, 2012 at 04:25:19 AM PST

    •  I'm curious how you deal with this (0+ / 0-)

      I've been reading / watching some stuff from Kurzweil, who I think is pretty ridiculous, and I'm wondering how to argue against his "we will use 100% solar energy worldwide by the mid 2020s" claims.  He's doing his standard extrapolation of trends stuff and says we're on track for that.

      My contentions include that that ignores most of the 9 challenges listed above, and ignores physical / human limits (like actually deploying the stuff), financial limits (like the fact that energy companies have tens of trillions of capex in fossil fuel infrastructure that will take decades to pay off), etc.

      But I'm curious how you and others deal with the extreme techno-utopian arguments. - thoughts on energy, the environment, and society.

      by barath on Sun Feb 05, 2012 at 08:53:19 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

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