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back to article Silicon Valley hypegasm for miracle shoebox powerplants

A Silicon Valley startup backed by the rainmaker who got Google off the ground is about to formally announce a miraculous, shoebox-sized device capable of powering a house - "anywhere, with no emissions" according to the BBC. BBC speculation on the Bloom Box No, actually Of course that's just Beeb Twitter-journalism twaddle, …

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Go

No good for houses but...

could be excellent for electric vehicles...

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Boffin

Static or mobile?

I read somewhere that this thing has an operating temp of 1000 degrees. Celsius.

I'm thinking better to let it sit still and recharge that electric car overnight than try to put one in a car.

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Megaphone

Thorium Reactors Are the Solution

Thorium can be bred into fissionable Uranium, which would ensure the world's energy supplies for the next 5000 years, based on current demand. No CO2 involveld, except for obtaining the Thorium.

If it were not for the Soviet cockup, we would probably be running more than one Throium Breeder here in Germany. This was not a demo machine, but yielded 300MW of power, about 1/4 of the largest current nuclear reactors.

I am waiting for the Russians to turn off Gas in the winter, which will finally silence the Greentards.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thtr

Also, there is a huge amount of U238 available, which could be bred into a fissionable Uranium nucleus. More than 99% of natural Uranium is U238. We currently only burn U235. The americans use U238 as ammo for tank-busters; it is so abundant....

Mabye time for Freedom Reactors ? (France is making 70% of their leccy by nuclear. And these are only U235-based).

Greentards, can you hear me ?

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re your generous reference to greentards

It may have went past your ears but some greentards were already talking about nuclear fission. But the problem with building nuclear reactors is not so much the greentards. It is on the one hand the general public which is, at least in this parts of the world, not very much in favour of new nuclear power plants. On the other hand it's finance: it is rather difficult to find investors for such plants simply because of the costs involved. Each part of the life cycle of a nuclear plant, ie planning, building, operating and decommissioning (incl. storage), is a costly high risk venture on its own.

I'm not a greentard but heard you anyway. But before promoting nuclear fission do us all a favour and try to apply some economics.

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hey i want new nuclear stations

Just not near me :/

tis the truth all over though ...

wouldnt care if i was single just my kids i dont really want living next to a reactor

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Problem with breeder reactors

Is one word.

Plutonium.

U238 is bred into Pu239 in a reactor. Fortunately for all of us, so far FBRs have been stupidly expensive, stupidly inefficient and stupidly unreliable so almost all countries have given up on the splendidly pyrotechnic mix of superheated plutonium, molten sodium and hot water.

We're already scared witless over the possibility of plutonium getting out of the fuel cycle and into the hands of the sort of people who shouldn't be trusted with a box of matches. And that's just with our existing light water reactors. Building reactors that are explicitly designed to make more of the stuff doesn't seem to be likely to end well.

The current treaties on the peaceful uses of nuclear power would give any country the right to make as much plutonium as they like in fast breeder reactors. They'd have to have reprocessing technology to recover the plutonium from the spent fuel and there is effectively no difference between bomb-grade and reactor grade plutonium if all you want is a relatively crude deterrent.

The thorium breeder has a similar problem. U233 is fast fissionable and as Operation Teapot showed in 1955 it makes for a delightfully pretty city buster.

http://nuclearweaponarchive.org/Usa/Tests/Tpotmet1.jpg

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Frogs legs and volts

France gets more than 70% of it's electricity from nuclear stations. My last bill listed:

82.9% Nuclear

9.3% Renewables (including 7.5% hydro)

3.1% Coal

3.0% Gas

1.4% Oil

0.3% other (what's left?!)

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Re: Frogs legs and volts

"0.3% other (what's left?!)"

Probably electric utility customer generated power, from customers who have their own power generation facilities (e.g. grid-tied solar systems, customer owned wind mills, etc).

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Go

THTR

The German page is much better:

http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kernkraftwerk_THTR-300

Even if yiu can't read German, the fuel conversion can be understood by anyone.

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But what's the ampage?

Electricity is two things: quantity of electrons and flow of electrons. Generating quantity has traditionally been fairly easy, with fuel cells, but generating flow has traditionally been a problem. You can convert large amounts of fairly slow electrons into a thin flow of very fast ones, but simply saying you can generates lots of volts does not amount to useful work, unless that translates into a real torrent of amperage.

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Estimates are pretty good

And the truth will set you free (or at least prevent some type of indigestion):

http://www.bloomenergy.com/products/data-sheet/

The large unit delivers 100kW from 0.661 MMBtu/hr of natural gas. The report from "60 Minutes" showed a small bundle for US homes (double for UK, based on VAC, i assume...might be reversed though). Looked like about 10-12 of the individual fuel cells in a bundle to produce 1kW (so roughly 4.5A per cube?).

To me, the technology is the still somewhat short-term, based on the need for a fuel component. I will say this presents the best idea I've seen so far, as I can't imagine anyone wanting a mini-nuke sitting in their backyard or attic. Still need someone to figure out an upgrade for Solar or XRay panels...that will destroy all the conventional energy discussions for a very long time.

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Coat

Yank tanks

100kw unit... Hey that could power a car cool... Now lets.... opps. weight 10 tons, umm size is a bit of an issue too...

I guess its not likely to power my laptop either....

Mines the one with the exoskeleton so I can get a few more hours of runtime out of my netbook

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10 tons for the biggins

The 100kW unit won't be sold to the average home buyer, though I would expect to see it rolled into apartments, condo, office parks, and the like, where folks might need that kind of draw. I mean, it's not like I've got 480V, 3 phase running to the house for shits and giggles (if you do, seek professional help).

The tech might help with fuel-cell batteries as well, given the size of a single cell is about half the volume of a typical laptop battery (no idea about the weight per cell). The 10 tons figure includes several other components beyond just the cells. Not sure about the heat output of a cell either, as that could be the downfall of the whole idea where most battery-powered devices are concerned.

BTW, for those unfamiliar with such Yank speak, biggins is Southern slang for "big ones".

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Good, but not the best

"The large unit delivers 100kW from 0.661 MMBtu/hr of natural gas. "

That works out to slightly less than 52% thermal efficiency, compared to 60% for the latest combined cycle plants. OTOH, if there's a good use for the waste heat, it would be an improvement over a combined cycle plant.

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Combined Heat and Power

The one advantage a compact fuel-cell system like this would have for home and office installations would be to provide heat as well as electricity -- it's what most of the British gas distribution system is designed for, firing combi boilers for central heating and hot water. At the moment the central generators waste most if not all of their low-grade heat to the atmosphere or into rivers and the seacoast. It's uneconomic to run steam pipes dozens of kilometres from the generating stations into urban areas to provide "free" heating and moving the generating stations closer to inhabited areas is seen as a health and pollution problem.

There are other downsides -- how long do these units last without maintenance or parts replacement? What are the levels of NOx pollutants they emit (using air rather than pure oxygen in fuel cells will always produce nitrogen compounds although there are methods of minimising these). The one big upside is there are no moving parts in a fuel-cell so it is likely operational costs will be significantly less than rotary generation systems already in use.

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Heat, what heat?

A fuel cell does not generate any significant heat - well at least an order of magnitude down on what a boiler/turbine would generate.

the huge benefit of fuel cells is the theoretical efficiency - close to 100% vs 35% any other way.

So, this device does have significant benefit regarding emissions.

I'm pleased they have some real samples out there developing real kilowatts; power density and expensive platinum group metals are the problems with fuel cells - not to mention catalyst poisoning - i.e. service life. We all knew some clever bugger would find a better cheap catalyst.

Hype aside, this does look genuinely promising.

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Hot inside

Other articles about this technology report a temperature of as much as 1000 degrees C at the reacting surfaces. There's a lot of heat generated by these devices -- fuel-cells work by combining oxygen and carbon-based fuel (or hydrogen) and that always a lot of heat. The improved efficiencies come from generating the electrical potentials directly rather than going through a series of lossy steps such as boiling a working fluid and converting the steam pressure to rotary motion to drive a generator of some type. They're still not great (maybe 60% efficient) but having the waste heat to hand to use for domestic heating, hot water, process heat in factories etc. might well make them a viable option.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_oxide_fuel_cell

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Headmaster

@kevin 3

I was speaking to a chemist (the kind with a PhD in chemistry) friend at lunch today and we briefly discussed the Bloom box. Apparently these units are NOT traditional hydrogen exchange membrane units (like the kind the space shuttle uses), but are some sort of new composite/ceramic material which operates at several thousands of degrees.

Apparently there is also some concern that they may produce a lot of Nitrous Oxide because of the heat which may make them unsuitable for use in areas without suitable ventilation. Might be a useful feature for hybrid street racers though...

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No platinum used

Based on the inteview I saw, these things use some cheap, common alloy instead of platinum, zirconium, or other standard fuel cell materials. The substrate is also supposed to be nothing more than a baked piece of sand, as the ink used on each side is the "secret sauce" involved.

Also, the efficiency numbers for these things are not exactly as perfect as typical fuel cells (estimated as > 50%, FWIW).

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There is lots of more gas besides "natural" gas

First of all, a gas grid with high-efficiency generation at the consumption point will probably have an overall efficiency higher than transporting electricity generated from gas via an electrical grid.

Second we have so far only exploited underground gas. That is a very small fraction of the gas we can get our hands on. There are other sources of gas that are so far untapped like gas-hydrates. There is also all the gas from landfill, sewerage works, etc. The problem with all of these is that the gas there is very dirty with very high percentage of hydrogen sulfide and other impurities. Burning it is not an option. A fuel cell however may be able to utilise it in a manner which does not produce all the nasty stuff you get when you simply burn it.

So if this will make us more addicted to gas I am all for it provided that it is that _OTHER_ gas we cannot currently use.

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What about grid loss?

While I agree we shouldn't be pinning our hopes on more fossil fueled tech, surely one benefit of CHP and maybe this shoebox thingy is that generation happens at the point of consumption, so avoids some of the transmittion loss associated with moving electricity around the country?

My understanding was that the national electricity grid is less than 40% efficient.

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Re: grid loss

My understanding is that the 40% figure includes the thermodynamic losses at the power station, and the grid itself loses hardly anything. Can anyone point us to some reputable source for actual figures?

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Pint

Get that nadger . . .

bolted to the back end of a cow - free methane fuel.

We are also deeply addicted to milk/cheese etc, so cows will be around for a long time (maybe longer than the gas pipelines). Those that don't produce milk we can always eat, and using the methane reduces greenhouse gases.

Trebles all round.

(N.B. a "nadger" is northern UK dialect for a clever and ingenious device/implement, of any kind)

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Flame

Wrong end...

Actually, most of the methane expelled into the air by cows is from their front end, not the back. They burp it rather than fart it...

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WTF?

which end?

It's the font end of the cow, sir.

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Joke

More than 2 ends?

"It's the font end of the cow, sir."

I think the *font* end of the cow is neither the front nor the back, but the "udder" end.

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Grenade

Bah

You don't see enough bashing of the BBC's "tech journalists" and I often wonder why.

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Landfill gas in perspective.

The landfill driven gas turbines I have heard of are int he MW class. Big by individual consumers but about 1/500 or less the size of the typical GW power station. They are *expected* to last about 30 years on a site and it's true the UK has *lots* of landfill. However it's not clear how many of these sites have the right construction (IE impermeable lining to trap it and an impermeable cap to lead the gas to the turbine.

OTOH it would be (more or less) carbon neutral.

However were more farmers and meat processors to take up anerobic digestion (as reported in El Reg a while back) this *could* cut gas requirement by 50% (Likely an *absolutely* best case but 25% off the UK gas bill would be a good idea) and of course it would make HMG less vulnerable to Russian err politicians.

Personally the best thing you could do would be to power your a central heating circulation pump and the controller from the gas supplied to the boiler. Otherwise you need *both* services just to make one work.

It's one of those ideas that looks *very* good, promotes independence, less reliance on central resources etc. Tickss all the right marketing boxes. But actually not very good at all, except for businesses.

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Anonymous Coward

Landfill gas

I read somewhere (OK, so that's reporting on a par with most of the rest on this subject :) ) that landfill gas was actually the single biggest source of renewable energy used in the UK. Seems hard to believe, but nice if it's true.

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Anonymous Coward

Storage

Could this work as another way of evening out renewable energy? When there is more energy in the grid than is needed use it to crack water to hydrogen and oxygen and then when the grid needs a boost the hydrogen could go through these cells to produce the extra needed?

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Start-stop quicker than gas power stations

On a similar theme, Lewis has argued before that wind is awkward because you still have to have backup capacity in gas, but switching gas generation on and off all the time is extremely inefficient (and bad for power stations). So if these boxes are comparable with gas for efficiency but can come one and off line easily, then isn't that a major benefit that might make transient sources like wind more palatable?

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Boffin

Gas Recirculation

Your absolute best efficiencies come from when you use pure Hydrogen and Oxygen gases; however, storage of these gases is considered difficult for "normal" residential use. A couple tens of cubic feet of Hydrogen is considered to be an extremely hazardous thing for residential use.

This is why most fuel cells for "commodity" use have targeted hydrocarbon fuels, as they are more easily stored and people already (mostly) know the risks involved. Also, as they don't have to be stored at any kind of pressure, this reduces other possible issues due to environmental changes or somebody simply knocking a pipe loose cleaning/storing/etc. in the utility closet or shed.

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aiming high

will be great in the caravan instead of the huge leisure battery I currently use.

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Anonymous Coward

Fuel Cells

..are nothing particular new. There is lot of talk about powering cars with hydrogen and fuel cells (generating leccy which drives an electric motor). Only problem in this case "where is the economic source of hydrogen ?".

The innovation here seems to be that these guys claim to have made a very cheap fuel cell.

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WTF?

Thanks

Thanks for the first rational reporting on the box I've seen. I looked a while yesterday, and everyone was repeating nonsense like saying the box could use solar and wind energy as fuel to generate electricity (?!?!?). Bottom line is at best it's an efficiency improvement on converting hydrocarbons to electricity, which can be a significant advance, but nothing revolutionary, and certainly not zero emissions. Clever implementation, including waste heat utilization for secondary generation or direct use would help a bit, but we're still talking an incremental efficienty improvement, not revolution.

And it amazes me that this stuff continues to get grafted along, and supported/reported by "technology" groups. When exactly it the "technology" area exclude basic science?

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Diesel generator

Whilst they may not be of use for most of us there are alot of people with diesel generators for various reasons. If it dose work as promised then it could replace alot of these.

But then we all know Lewis never let a bit of lateral thinking get in the way of a good rant.

It could also be alot of use for local micro power plants, for example http://www.lowcarbonbuildings.org.uk/Microgeneration-Technologies/Wood-fuelled-heating-Biomass. Better than burning.

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May I ask...

How much lateral thinking is required to go from generating electricity from natural gases to "Zero emissions" electricity?

Lewis should find more of these, might shame those journalist to go back to their science books.

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Its not the rant against the

claims that worrys me, but the next two pages implying this is a useless invention because a few people have go the facts wrong.

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Re: the rant

Then you need to live longer.

You would be quite correct in stating that third-party errors are not the responsibility of the inventor, nor do they affect the value of the invention. However, there are too many claims and too little time to investigate them, so any reasonable person uses a set of quick-and-dirty "filters" to assess the potential merits of a claim.

One of the most effective filters is whether the claim is being hyped-up or not. Any inventor with a clue knows this and will stomp on the hype as best they can, so even the level of third-party-hype is an indicator.

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WTF?

Journalists, what do they know?

The Guardian reports magic properties for the Bloom Box:

"But its real potential lies in its claimed ability to use any fuel source – gas, plants, wind, solar, etc"

[http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/feb/22/bloom-box-fuel-cell-launch]

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Troll

It's simple, isn't it?

The SUN and the WIND combine to grow PLANTS, which you harvest + ferment to make GAS which goes in the magical box that converts hydrocarbons to electricity.

Alternatively you could wait for the plants to be eaten by animals, die, degrade into fossil fuel and use that, but that's much lengthier and controversial for some reason.

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might come in handy

This micro-generator or micro-fuel-cell would come in handy at the house. The electrical system in my city is crap and we have day-long outages. I've debated getting a whole-house generator, just to avoid the nuisance.

The power company that (sometimes) serves us used to be lovingly named "Communist Edison" for their legendary service levels and electricity prices.

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Bloomin' Bloom Box

Several comments, none related to the reality/unreality of the Bloom box.

1. Ethanol sources: Lewis, surely you are aware that non-crop biomass production of ethanol is coming soon.

2. Electric grid losses are ~40%. If the Bloom box works at all, it need not be very efficient to do better than the grid. Being colocated with the consumer, it automatically has a 40% efficiency advantage, depending on the losses in the gas grid. What ARE the losses in the gas grid?

3. Again if the Bloom box works as advertized, gas need not be its only fuel. Certainly the vast herds of cattle on the Salisbury plain can be harnessed to supply much of it. Erm... Please ignore that last. Bloom claims the box can take in electrons and produce fuel (I'd like to see THAT!), perhaps completely changing the equation.

Otherwise, a good article, with a reasonable dose of scepticism. More power to you, Lewis!

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Anonymous Coward

Corn Husk

"As for ethanol, the only way this can be produced in a vaguely green way is as biofuel from food crops - and this equates to starvation for the world's poor plus accelerated deforestation with associated eco-evils."

...not if corn husks meet their destiny.

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Stop

Probably not going to be best for

individual houses, but it could be very handy at a neighbourhood level. Rather than having a substation that draws all of it's power from the grid it could largely or totally cut the need for grid power, cutting transmission losses and increasing efficiency (large gas turbine power plants run at less than 60% efficiency - less again when you include transmission losses -, the Bloom is supposed to be in the 80%+ range). There should also be a reduction in other emission products.

The big target though would be in electric cars. There's already a network of LPG filling stations with which to fuel them. Combine a Bloom fuel cell with a super capacitor storage unit (to even out peak power demands) and you'd have a clean, low carbon solution with fast refuelling times and long range. CO2 should be less than 1/2 of that produced by current cars, there'd be no NOX, hydrocarbons or particulates emitted (the components of smog) and it sounds like the technology is going to be more affordable than Lithium Ion battery packs.

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Stop

Norway

It's certainly true that a lot of gas is being imported into Europe as a whole is from Russia, however, I think you'll find that a significant proportion of imports into the UK come from Norway.

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they've released the numbers

http://www.bloomenergy.com/products/data-sheet/

how does that compare to the combined cycle gas turbine thingy? (power stations also suffer from transmission costs of course)

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Huge rise in electricity prices

If these worked and every home used them to generate electric from their gas supply then you would only need electricity at peak demand, or if they failed.

So the electric company couldn't balance selling cheap baseline load 90% of the time and peak expensive load for 10% - it would all be peak expensive load, so your electric cost/unit would have to go up 200%.

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Bah!

I thought this was going to be fusion-in-a-shoebox, and on the strength of that ordered my gas and electricity disconnected pending clean, cheap, home-generated power. Now all my pipes have burst and there's nothing hot for tea.

*When* will The Register begin presenting the important information *clearly* in its articles?

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emissions and distribution

Re: "zero emissions". Basically hype, but the second component to this is some US'ians still don't consider CO2 to be an emission -- if this doesn't emit carbon monoxide, NOx or unburned hydrocarbons it's "zero emissions" by that standard.

And I agree with Nick22's point, a big efficiency gain here could be from reducing grid losses. Electricity here in the states can travel a looooong way before it is used; even if these ended up being a little less efficient than an efficient power plant, they could end up with the upper hand due to grid loss. I should add, parts of the US *do* have a natural gas grid; I have a gas line running to my house. That's another part of the equation though.... 1) Does the gas grid have the capacity it needs to fuel these units? (It's gotten down to -40C here a few times, and -15C is not uncommon... the gas distribution points REALLY start to hiss when it's that cold making me wonder how much extra capacity is left in them) 2) In areas without a gas grid, trucking in gas really could change the efficiency equation.

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