Green Energy–Environment Issues and Global Politics

Go Green
Go Green
Go Green

July 1, 2011 (Coal Geology): As we all know, the five lettered word GREEN is one of the fundamental colours. But, the revised 7th edition of “The Little Oxford Dictionary“ edited by Maurice Waite attaches a more useful meaning – “Green is concerned with protection of environment / not harmful to environment / supporter of protection of environment.” So it is implied that the Green Energy is neatly intertwined with the issue of environmental protection.

Historical Evolution of Energy

The need for energy has ever been felt since the birth of this planet on our solar system. In the Ice Age man would live in places where there were no glaciers and bathed in sunlight to keep him warm. It was followed by the Stone Age, so named, as man made all his tools with stones. By sharpening the edges of stones, he developed better weapons for hunting as well as to protect himself for self defense and keeping away the wild beasts. In this age, the Palaeolithic man experienced usable form of natural energy when they saw nature playing its magic –he witnessed large scale forest-fire, possibly by rubbing together of dry trees giving out heat and light energy. Aghast at first, but its warmth comforted man. It reposed faith in him and the journey of civilization took its root. Man, rather Ape-Man started striking together flint-stones to generate sparks, the primary source of man-made energy and he used these sparks to set fire to twigs, dry leaves and unknowingly similar inflammable materials that gave him enormous comfort in winter.  Gradually he developed the habit of roasting his preys and illuminating cave and other dwelling places.

Means of knowing was thus based on practical experience and therefore development of knowledge was extraordinarily uneven. This light and shade of knowledge added to the improvement in living conditions in terms of food and safety, possibly, gave him leisure to think and geared him gradually with immeasurable greater power. So as the Copper Age and Iron Age dawned, man started using metals, making tools and utensils. Experience gave him wisdom. History reveals that the post stone age, termed as the regime of Neolithic Man, is densely dotted with many creative activities and the wheel of civilization kept on pacing onwards. The Palaeolithic Man and later, the Neolithic Man just alluded, had lived perhaps 10000 years ago – nobody knows the exact period. However as we got nearer to our present age, the changes that came were not sudden but gradual, as is nature’s way. But that the spark of two pieces of flint-stones essentially played the most crucial role, leading to successive events, shaping human civilization.

Today we know that the energy exists in various forms – mechanical, electrical, thermal, chemical, acoustic etc. and surprisingly they are convertible, meaning that one form can be transformed into another. The Ape-man produced sparks, form of both heat and light energies by mechanically rubbing together a pair of flint-stones. By this, he unknowingly demonstrated the conversion of mechanical energy to heat and light energies. However it is important to know that the primary source of all these energies is the Sun, which is a source of pure GREEN Energy. So we see that the nature’s gift to its creatures for their sustenance was cent percent green energy. But the advancement of human progress, particularly in last two centuries, discovered that this wonderful gift was practically of no use unless they are available in a much better organized and concentrated form. To shape it into proper form, several procedural steps are needed (Commercial Conventional Energy) that inherently generates pollution. It’s like jewellery – unless some base metal is added to pure gold, which essentially amounts to mixing impurities to it, it doesn’t shape into any useful ornament.

Electrical Energy is the only form of energy available handy as it can be transported so easily using electrical conductors. So in our discussion we will ponder only on the sources of electrical energy that is to say various types of power plants generating electrical energy.

The cornerstone of generation of electrical energy for mankind as well as industries and several other areas lay in the crowning discovery of the principles of electromagnetic induction by Michael Faraday way back in 1831. Electric Generator had brought a revolution on the outlook on life and the way of living.

Conventional and Unconventional sources of Energy

Having had a brief prefatory discussion on the evolution of energy, we are now prepared to enter into the subject based on the electrical energy – the energy we use every day at our home, in offices, in industries, airports …… the list is almost unending. Urban life in general is totally dependent on this energy. The source of this energy is termed as conventional source of energy and they are really large scale sources, producing scores of hundreds of megawatts of power. Under this category we have thermal power plant, using fossil fuels like coal, mineral oil and natural gas as the primary input of energy. We have also hydel power using potential energy of water-head as the input energy source and finally the nuclear power obtained by nuclear fission by bombarding fissile material like specific isotope of uranium by slow neutron. Out of these, hydel power, though eco-unfriendly but is totally green, meaning the power plant doesn’t emit greenhouse gases. Again, the nuclear energy is really green for all practical purposes. Nuclear power is not only eco friendly, but the power plant has hardly any scope of emitting greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide, causing environmental changes detrimental to improved living standard of mankind in the long run. Neither it liberates pollutants like sulphur dioxide, lethal gases of nitrogen, carbon monoxide etc. that are deceptively threatening to human health. Is it that nuclear power is really free from all problems? The answer is no. Nuclear wastes are really dangerous.  But technology for containment of waste is not only very much proven, but are continuously being improved for more than five decades We will discuss in details when we talk about nuclear power as it is the only large scale source of green energy for all practical purposes. Thermal power plants suffer from all these serious defects. Curiously the conventional sources of energy, but for the hydel power, is also termed as the Non-Renewable source of energy for the simple reason that the chemical energy trapped in fossil fuels or the nuclear energy dormant in the bound  state of nucleus of fissile materials once utilized, cannot be replenished by normal natural phenomenon. Once used up, it will mean the depletion of its reserve resource. This also implies that the earth’s reserve sources of energy are fast declining and we will discuss in details when we talk about the issue of energy crisis.

Now the question lurks in mind, is there any such thing as Unconventional sources of energy? Indeed there is. They are renewable too.  Most importantly, these are the sources of green energies. Under this head falls Sun, Wind, Geothermal, Biomass etc. We will discuss pros and cons of all these later. Presently there is just about only 1% consumption from these sources globally as no methods of practices have yet been standardized. These forms of energies are unable to compete with its conventional counterpart in terms of quantity, quality and prices. But they are coming up rapidly because of their renewable nature, keeping in mind that the nature’s reserve is fast decreasing as the demand for energy, an essential element for sustenance, is increasing daily as the world’s population, particularly in Asian countries, continues to increase at the rate of quarter of a million people per day. So, because of its renewable nature, mankind has to heavily depend upon such energy resources in days to come and these kind of sources are already associated with a befitting title “Alternative Energy Sources“. Before finishing this part of the essay, J would like to add that the conventional energy sources are justly prefixed by researchers and academicians by adding another befitting word “Commercial” and it takes the name “Commercial Conventional Energy Sources”. They are generated in large scale and necessarily for large mass. The term commercial has very important implication. It refers to availability of such energy resources easily and at affordable cost. It has been possible as the practices – in terms of handling fuels, particularly fossil fuels, the steps involved right from their mining, transportation, through generation of power – are technologically more than a century old and therefore thoroughly proven and commercially competitive. Whereas, procedural steps needed to generate power from renewable sources, better to say alternative sources are still in the development stage and thus yet to be commercially competitive besides its limitations in terms of scale of generation when compared with its conventional counterpart.

Environment and Political Issues

Now, the time has come to keep the environment clean and green to save the most worthy planet, our mother Earth. From the poisonous gas exhaled by huge exhausts devouring a lot of fossil fuel, we can fathom the amount of waste as well as the environmental pollution. The fossil fuel is fast diminishing causing the destruction of eco-diversity.

The ecological costs are being shifted from the rich to the poorer countries in an increasingly globalized world. Conferences and meetings involving top leaders of countries all over the globe , are being organized since last couple of years, but without any agreement, rather the talks proceed in reverse gear, the simple reason being is that the interest of the more industrialized western world contributing on an average 15 – 20 times more to the global pollution, is not met. Moreover, they are trying both cajoling and threats in refined form on the lesser developed and even poor countries to sacrifice in terms of emission of greenhouse gases that indirectly will mean lessening their industrialization and therefore development.

One can hardly deny that the environmental crisis deepens. During last several years, the frequency of storms like Katrina has increased significantly. During last six years observations of satellite pictures of West Bengal in India and Bangladesh, revealed only 100 islands out of 102 reported earlier. According to scientists, it is said that due to the rise in sea level two islands got submerged and vanished. The grave and devastating incident of Tsunami in Indonesia and Indian coast are fresh in mind. On BBC television news it is often seen that flash floods have taken place in spots of USA, Germany, France, China. It is curious to note that during last one year a number of disasters had taken place one after another. One can see heavy fog over Kremlin, Moscow, but the temperature indicated 42 degree Celcius. This was followed by wild spread forest-fire ravaging areas around Moscow. On the television screen, one could see the brick-red colour of the sky above the trees and through trees one could catch glimpses of leaping orange flames. An immense iceberg four times the size of Manhattan has parted ways with a polar glacier in Greenland.

 That is not all. Around the same point of time, we witnessed the tragic pictures from Pakistan, where devastating floods have displaced 15 million people and killed a couple of thousands. On 11th August 2010 a mudslide hit Drugchu on Tibetan Prefecture. On the very next day on the other end of the Tibetan worlds an intense cloud cluster developed over Leh. It started with a drizzle that suddenly became an absolute deluge, resulted in 250 mm of rainfall within an hour. The phenomenon was very local as an Air Force observatory some distance away from the cloud burst zone recorded only 12.5 mm of rain. And now the latest one and perhaps the worst among all these was the massive tsunami on 11th March, 2011. Triggered by Japan’s most powerful earthquake (9.0 in Richter scale) in nearly a century, it caused devastation in north coastal Japan sweeping away houses, ships, cars, seting ablaze several buildings and a major petro chemical plant and killing over six thousand people. Nature’s rage didn’t end there – the tsunami images showed explosion of three nuclear reactors on almost successive days triggering radioactive leaks.

Seemingly disconnected, these widely scattered disasters are pointing to the question of whether global warming is causing weather extremes. There is an unbroken chain of cause and effect running through the whole process. If you disturb nature too much it’s going to react violently. Quoting J. Lawrimore, chief of Climate Analysis of the National Climate Data Centre in Ashville, USA “The climate is changing, extreme events are occurring with greater frequency and in many cases with greater intensity.”

It is hoped though with diffidence that the decision makers about the wider world are expected to give conscious part of their thought and not allow public sentiment or emotion to dominate while choosing many alternative sources of large scale energy so that our planet may have minimum share of pollution from power generating sources.

Pollution measurement standards

Globally, why every government including my country is allocating substantial funds in quest of green energy? This trend is particularly significant during past decade. In the beginning of this article the meaning of the word “GREEN” has been unfolded. Besides usual meaning it is synonymous with “environmental protection”.

Considering the significant source of greenhouse gas emissions, in particular carbon dioxide, accumulating in the atmosphere, fossil fuel energy is viewed as increasingly socially irresponsible. The greenhouse gases contributing to global warming consist of, besides carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, oxides of sulphur, methane and methane like organic gases. These gases are sensitive to trap solar radiation and thus causing greenhouse effect. Other pollutants causing change of environment are lead, oil, cadmium, mercury etc. Numerous approaches have been proposed to estimate these pollutants. The two very important pointers are: Human Disruption Index (HDI) and Carbon Footprint. A brief discussion followed by some data will help understanding intuitively the level of atmospheric pollution as a whole including global warming. It is worth noting that the measurement method using carbon footprint is most recent. First we take the case of HDI. HDI is essentially a measure of the extent to which human activities disrupt or alter the environment. Unlike Carbon Footprint, HDI takes into account a larger number of pollutants like lead, cadmium, mercury, toxic particles, oxides of nitrogen etc. In a more scientific manner, it is defined as a ratio of human generated emissions to the natural flow also called base line flow. The following table shows the degree to which human activities disrupt natural cycle.

Flows

HDI

Lead 15
Oil to Ocean 10
Cadmium 8
Sulphur dioxide 1.4
Mercury 0.7
Toxic Particles 0.3
N2O 0.4

It means we mobilize 15 times more lead than is naturally mobilized, mainly through burning leaded gasoline, for example, which fortunately is decreasing around the world. We spill 10 times more oil in the ocean than occur naturally and more cadmium, sulphur, mercury etc. The atmospheric stock of some greenhouse gases has been measured to be more than two times the natural level and we have increased the carbon dioxide level by 30%. Although manufacturing, agriculture and other sectors have impacts, energy plays the largest role in adding to these and other global flows.

And the more recent measurement technique termed Carbon Footprint will indicate the contribution of carbon dioxide and its equivalent from various forms of energy generation. But we must define Carbon Footprint. A Carbon Footprint is the total set of greenhouse gas emission caused by an organization, event, product or person. It is a drab definition. It demands some clarification so that it is intuitively understood by non experts. One should give attention to bold faced words in the earlier definition. A better definition is “A carbon Footprint is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide emitted through the combustion of fossil fuels. In the case of a business organization it is the amount of CO2 emitted either directly or indirectly as a result of its everyday operations. It also might reflect the fossil energy represented in a product or commodity reaching market.” A simple example will clarify the point. When I am storing this article in my hard disk, I am releasing some carbon into the environment! Yes it is. When I respire, I give out CO2. This is my personal share to greenhouse gas. This is direct emission. The disk storing my file is powered by some energy source. That small share of energy is generated by burning some fuel at the power plant that contributes to GHG. This contribution of GHG is indirect. The method of Carbon Footprint has become so popular that the Carbon Footprint calculators are available on Net.

Emission Factors of Common Fuels

Fuel Resource

Electric

g(CO2-eq )/ kW-h(electricity)

Coal 955
Oil 893
Natural gas 599
Geothermal Power 91 – 122
Uranium Nuclear Power 65
Hydroelectricity 15
Conc. Solar Power 40 ± 15
Photovoltaic 106
Wind Power 21

These studies thus concluded that hydroelectric, wind and nuclear power always produced the least CO2 per kilowatt-hour of any other electricity sources. It is important to note that these figures do not allow for emissions due to accidents or terrorism. Renewable electricity generation methods, for example wind power and hydropower, emit no carbon from the operation, but do leave a footprint during construction phase and maintenance during operation.

Large Scale Green Energy from Atomic Power

Let us discuss the principle of generation of atomic power. When Uranium-235, whose presence in nature is just about 0.7%, is bombarded by slow neutrons, called thermal neutrons, it splits into two smaller fragments with the release of some amount of energy. One can look into the finer aspect of this mysterious energy. The combined mass of the fragments is found to be less than the original mass of the atom. This is known as the mass defect. And this difference of mass is converted into energy by Einestein’s famous relation E = mc2, where m is called the rest mass and c the velocity of light equals 300,000 km/sec. The entire process is known as nuclear fission. It is worth mentioning that fission of just one Uranium-235 nucleus will generate about 200 Million electron volt of energy which is quantitatively a trivial amount of energy. But if a significant amount of Uranium-235, which contains billions and billions of Uranium nucleus, is organized to sustain a chain reaction in a very short time, it will generate enormous amount of energy. In fact, this is the principle of atom bomb and we see why atom bomb is so devastating. The great Italian born American scientist Enrico Fermi discovered the technique of controlling the fission reaction so that energy could be generated in a controlled fashion and that eventually led to the birth of atomic reactor. Today we all know that the source of nuclear power is the atomic reactor where the heat or thermal energy liberated in the fission process is utilized to generate steam that is forced to move the turbine blades leading to generation of electrical energy. There are fissionable materials like Plutonium-239, an isotope of original Plutonium-238, which is obtained by feeding the original material with a neutron. Likewise naturally occurring Thorium-232 is fattened by pushing in a neutron to make it Thorium-233 which is equally fissionable like U235. It is worth noting that Thorium is three times more plentiful than Uranium and therefore considerably cheaper and breeder reactors – although limited in number in whole world – is not only used to generate nuclear power but to create more nuclear fuel, like Thorium-233, than it consumes. The whole description is more than oversimplified but I believe, this will serve the purpose for this article.

Population, Energy and Environment

There is a relationship among population, energy use and the environment. The environmental impact is a function not only of population but on the affluence of the population as affluent countries use more energy and therefore emit more greenhouse gases. At present the difference in the standard of living between the developed countries and the developing/under developed countries is amazingly high and it is worth noting that only 30% of world population is consuming far more energy and responsible for emission of 75% of total emission of GHG. The per capita carbon emission among the following four listed countries will show the difference.

Country

 

Metric ton of carbon

Emission/person/year

USA 20.10
Japan 9.87
European Union 9.40
India 1.02

The world population continues to grow at a quarter of a million per day increasing the energy consumption. In 1850, the world population was only 1260 million. In 2000, it was 6783.4 million. Accommodating this 5 to 6 times of population during last 150 years necessitated to look for new dwelling places and proportionately more cultivable land for producing food. A vast area of forest, which was full of green cover, had to be destroyed. Because of the reduction of this green cover, the rate of carbon removal from environment by the process of photosynthesis has reduced, thus increasing the greenhouse gas in the environment. The following table is very indicative to establish the share of energy use due to population and affluence.

Place

Period

Overall Energy % due to growth

Annual rate of population growth

World

1890 – 1990

2.6%

49%

1970 –  1990

2.3%

84%

OECD

1965 – 1989

2.2%

35%

USA

1890 – 1990

2.5%

55%

1970 – 1990

1.1%

93%

Japan

1965 – 1989

4.7%

25%

Australia

1965 – 1989

3.6%

46%

Korea, Rep.

1965 – 1989

8.0%

22%

China

1985 – 1989

4.4%

44%

India

1965 – 1989

3.6%

62%

We will discuss the first data of the table which will explain its significance. The data indicates that the world energy use for 1890 – 1990 increased by an average of 6% per year. About half (49%) of it was due to population growth, the rest due to increased affluence. Interestingly, in more recent times, 1970 – 1990, population growth was 84%. In other words, if there had been no population growth but the same increase in affluence between 1970 and 1990 there would have been 84% less energy use during that period.

Combating Emergency Crises for Energy

Even countries rich in fossil fuels are now seeing rapid inroads into their reserves. Fossil fuel should be reserved to combat the oil crisis in order to meet the national emergency in future. There may be many reasons for crisis. In this turbulent socio-economic situation of the world, the major Arab oil producing states may cause a serious bottleneck. There are instances: 1973 oil crisis caused by an OPEC oil export embargo by many oil rich Arab countries in protest against western support of Israel during the Yom Kipper war, 1979 oil crisis caused by the Iranian revolution, 1990 oil price shock caused by the Gulf war, to name a few. Attacks by terrorist or militia on important infrastructure with successful strike on facilities, may potentially cause global shortage.

Fusion: The Next Step?

So far we have seen that taming the atom bomb reaction, the nuclear power could be generated. The process involved was fission where a heavy nucleus like Uranium-235 splits into two light nuclei with the release of some energy. If man can tame the reactions in which nuclei of atoms are fused rather than split, he will have an almost limitless source of energy, and almost a pure form of green energy. The problem, although known for a long time, is now being attacked in laboratories all over the world.

The principle of releasing energy by fusion is by combining together two light nuclei into one. Here again part of the mass of the fusing light nuclei is transformed into energy according to Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2. But in this sort of fusing a great deal of energy has to be put in to make a few nuclei fuse. There can be no net yield of energy from fusion unless it proceeds by a self sustaining reaction, as, for example, in the interior of the sun. This is accomplished in a number of steps in the centre of the sun where the particles are held together at enormous pressure and a temperature of about two million degree centigrade. One place where high pressure and multi-million degree temperature is available is in the immediate vicinity of an exploding atom bomb. When the bomb explodes, it provides an environment in which the light nuclei are forced to come together and cause fusion and release still more energy. Such a procedure, however, is far from satisfactory for operating a power plant. Intensive work is being carried out by all countries that have necessary financial and scientific resources, in an effort to find some practical way of maintaining a steady, controllable flow of energy from nuclear fusion reactions. The ingredients for fusion are plentiful. For example hydrogen and its heavier isotopes like deuterium and tritium. The reactions are like collision of H-H/D-D/D-T. D-D collision is the most popular as it is plentiful at the same time it is easy to separate from common hydrogen. An academic exercise as mentioned by George Gamow will give the feel of the energy availability from fusion reaction. In all the waters of the oceans, about 1 hydrogen in 6500 is Deuterium isotope. If the deuterium in a single cubic meter of water were to be put through the D-D fusion process, it would release energy equal to the burning of 2000 barrels of oil. One cubic kilometer of water would yield about as much energy as the world’s all of the known oil reserves. And fusion produces no appreciable amount of radioactive by-products. So energy from fusion is the ideal green energy. But a number of major breakthroughs is still needed and one can’t predict when that will be achieved. The time needed may be measured in years, in decades or in scores of decades. Meanwhile the end of our petroleum resources lies just over the horizon. As for the nuclear fuel viz., the world’s Uranium and Thorium reserve, it is estimated, represent an energy reserve somewhere between 10 and 100 times larger than its remaining coal. Practically all of the economically recoverable Uranium and Thorium might be exhausted within another few centuries. Although today the only large scale clean power is nuclear power and it contributes to 16% energy to global power, it should not all be nuclear for two reasons. First, from the cost point of view, generation of nuclear power is at best competitive with the power generation cost from all other conventional sources without taking into account of the decommissioning (dismantling of a nuclear power plant and decontamination of a site to a state no longer requiring protection from radiation for the general public) cost of the nuclear power plant. These power plants are designed for a 40 – 60 years of operating life. None of the nuclear power plants of India has so far been decommissioned. So there is no data available regarding decommissioning cost. So we take the example from one of those who has gone through this exercise. Decommissioning is very expensive. The current estimate by the United Kingdom’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) is that, it will cost at least 70 billion pounds to decommission the 19 existing United Kingdom nuclear sites. Also due to radioactivity in the reactor structure, decommissioning is a slow process which takes place in stages. The plans of the NDA for decommissioning reactors have an average of 50 years of time frame. The long time frame makes reliable cost estimate extremely difficult and excessive cost overrun is not uncommon.

Secondly, had this been not expensive in the long run, the cost conscious jingoistic Americans would have gone for all nuclear energy. USA’s electricity generation from nuclear energy is just about 25% – 30% of total demand. The reason is perhaps not really the long term cost. It is even more serious. If the present total power needs of only USA, not to mention the whole world, are supplied by nuclear reactors, they have to dispose each year an amount of radioactive product equal to that from 200,000 atom bombs. So it is clear that with the increasing use of power which is imminent with time, as the population increases, the radioactive wastes will increase enormously and the problems of their safe disposal in the coming age of nuclear power will soon become staggering. Used fuel taken out of a reactor is highly radioactive and remains dangerous for thousands of years.

Country

Electricity from NPP

Lithuania

80%

France

78%

Slovakia

57%

Belgium

55%

Sweden

50%

Top 5 countries using electricity from Nuclear Power Plants

In this article we have deliberately omitted detailed discussion on two more sources of green energy namely, electricity generation from wind and from the sun as we are concerned only with the large scale practical source of green energy. The following table will succinctly reflect the handicaps of other sources when compared with the nuclear power.

But the good news is round the corner. The highest nuclear power producing country in the world is France, that has come with the great idea to recycle this “waste”, transforming it into a valuable energy source for the future. According to French nuclear scientists, about 95% of all used fuel could be reprocessed for future use. Philippe Pradel, vice-president of GDF Suez, one of the world’s leading energy producers claim that the reprocessing program has been successfully applied and “France now has fuel for thousands of years.” About 4% of today’s spent fuel is true “high level” waste that needs careful attention for storage for centuries. These wastes, mixed with the raw ingredients of glass at volcanic temperatures, put into steel canisters and stored in vertical shafts pending development of storage deep underground. Compared with the mountains of ash, acid, dust and toxic chemicals emitted by coal or oil-fired power stations, a year’s high-level nuclear waste per person is estimated to be about five grams.

Power Source

Nuclear

Wind

Solar

Production Pattern Consistent Inconsistent, even at their best generates power, only 22% of the time Inconsistent, do not work in bad weather or dark conditions
  (Backing system running on fossil fuels must be kept running on standby. So all the advantages of reduced emission are lost.)
Scale of Production High Low Low
Cost Reasonable Very High Very High

References

[1].  http://unu.edu/unupress/lecture6.html, Kirk R. Smith, “The Most Important Chart in the World”.

[2].  Nu-Power, An International Journal of Nuclear Power Vol. 22-4 (2008), June 2009.

[3].  G. Chakraborty, “Global warming: Means to Arrest”.

[4].  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy_crisis

[5].  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_footprint

[6].  Thomas Wiedmann and Jan Minx, “A Definition of ‘Carbon Footprint’”, ISAUK Research Report 07-01.

[7].  B.K. De, “Introduction to Energy Management”.

[8].  George Gamow, “Foundations and Frontiers of Physics”.

[9].  The Statesman.

[10].          Scientific American.

[11].          Reader’s Digest, April 2011.

Author: Swapan Kumar De

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