Cambridge scientists use light and plants to make cheap, clean hydrogen

March 15, 2017 by  
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Everyone from startups to car companies as big as Toyota have seen the potential of hydrogen as a clean fuel source for vehicles, since its only byproduct is water. But hydrogen is often made with natural gas , which may be less polluting than oil but isn’t exactly clean, so six University of Cambridge scientists developed a way to make the fuel source using sunlight and biomass like leaves. The researchers created clean hydrogen with biomass as a starting point. They suspended biomass in alkaline water and added catalytic nanoparticles. In a laboratory, these components were placed in light mimicking light from the sun , and the nanoparticles got to work, using the light to begin the chemical reactions necessary to produce hydrogen from lignocellulose, part of plant biomass. The university notes the process is both sustainable and relatively cheap. The journal Nature Energy published their research online earlier this week. Related: Startup creates renewable hydrogen energy out of sunlight and water In the past, to turn lignocellulose into hydrogen scientists had to use high temperatures in a gasification process, but the Cambridge scientists say they could simply use sunlight in their method instead. Joint lead author David Wakerley pointed out biomass stores lots of chemical energy, but since it’s unrefined, it’s not feasible to just burn biomass in car engines, for example. He said, “Our system is able to convert the long, messy structures that make up biomass into hydrogen gas, which is much more useful.” The scientists were able to make hydrogen with leaves, paper, and wood. Co-author Erwin Reisner said, “Our sunlight-powered technology is exciting as it enables the production of clean hydrogen from unprocessed biomass under ambient conditions. We see it as a new and viable alternative to high temperature gasification and other renewable means of hydrogen production. Future development can be envisioned at any scale, from small scale devices for off-grid applications to industrial-scale plants.” A United Kingdom patent application has already been filed for the process and thanks to Cambridge Enterprise , which helps academics bring their concepts to market, discussions with a possible commercial partner are ongoing. Via New Atlas and the University of Cambridge Images via Wilerson S Andrade on Flickr and the University of Cambridge Department of Chemistry

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Cambridge scientists use light and plants to make cheap, clean hydrogen

50% of Earth’s species face extinction by 2100

February 27, 2017 by  
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Biologists, economists, and ecologists have gathered at the Vatican to discuss what actions humanity can take to preserve Earth’s biosphere . Attending the Biological Extinction conference, these researchers say one in five species are currently threatened with extinction , but that statistic could skyrocket to 50 percent of all species on Earth by 2100 if we do nothing to stem the preventable carnage. The conference organizers said endangered species like the rhinoceros or tiger may make headlines now and again, but we’re largely overlooking the peril other living things face. In case we think otherwise, Earth’s animals and plants are vital for the planet and for us: they provide food and medicine, absorb carbon emissions , purify the air and water, and regenerate soil, to name a few functions. The organizers said, “The living fabric of the world is slipping through our fingers without our showing much sign of caring.” Related: First mammal species succumbs to climate change Paul Ehrlich, a biologist from Stanford University , blamed the destruction of the environment on the lifestyles of rich Western countries. He said, “Rich Western countries are now siphoning up the planet’s resources and destroying its ecosystems at an unprecedented rate. We want to build highways across the Serengeti to get more rare earth minerals for our cellphones. We grab all the fish from the sea, wreck the coral reefs , and put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We have triggered a major extinction event. The question is: how do we stop it?” Researchers will be at the Vatican today talking about economic and social changes we could take to try and save the planet’s species. The Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences are sponsoring the workshop, which continues until March 1 to explore several ecological issues. Ehrlich said, “If you look at the figures, it is clear that to support today’s world population sustainably – and I emphasize the word sustainably – you would require another half a planet to provide us with those resources. However, if everyone consumed resources at the U.S. level – which is what the world aspires to – you will need another four or five Earths.” Via The Guardian Images via Pixabay and Pexels

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8 surprising uses for hemp that could make the world a greener place

January 30, 2017 by  
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Hemp isn’t just for hackin’ the sack at Phish shows or making rope. This amazing plant, a non-psychoactive variety of cannabis grown specifically for industrial purposes, has a vast number of applications for a greener planet. Cultivated hemp grows quickly in a wide variety of climates and does not degrade the soil in which it is grown. Tune in, turn on, and read this feature to learn the latest developments in the magical (yet still illegal in most countries) world of hemp. Housing Hemp can processed into a durable material that was once used by Henry Ford to construct a car that was lighter, less expensive and consumed less power than traditional metal cars. These principles have also been applied to housing throughout the world. In the United Kingdom, farmer Nick Voase turned his own grown hemp into an amazing eco-house, held together by lime, that is cool in summer, warm in winter, and even features a walk-in fridge made out of hemp. In South Africa, hemp advocate Tony Budden is working hard to demonstrate the value of the wonder plant; he and his partner built the country’s first hemp home. Northern Ireland’s Bevan Architects  used hemp to construct a simple low-impact cottage on a riverside apple orchard for an environmentally friendly retreat from urban living. Lastly, in Australia, Mihaus Studio built a prefabricated hemp-based modular space that can be adapted for a wide variety of purposes. Plastic Traditional plastic is derived from non-renewable resources and is non-biodegradable, which means that disposed plastic usually ends up in ever expanding landfills. Enter our hero, hemp, a renewable resource which can be used to produce biodegradable plastic. A shift to the greener hemp would not require a sacrifice of quality . Hemp plastic may be up to 5 times stiffer and 2.5 stronger than traditional plastic made from polypropylene and unlike glass fibers, hemp plastic would not pose safety and health risks. Designers, such as  Studio Aisslinger , have incorporated this fine bioplastic into its products, such as the chair shown above. Pet Toys Hemp isn’t only for humans. Dogs, cats, and other furry, feathered, or scaly friends can also benefit from the plant. Honest Pet Products has created a line of pet toys made from sustainable hemp and organic wool. The method by which these toys are produced is also beneficial for the environment and community. The toys are manufactured by adults with developmental disabilities in Wisconsin and women living in the Gobi Desert and Nepal, who simultaneously support their family with their work and vow to protect the local snow leopards as a condition for their employment. Energy Storage Graphene  has received a great deal of attention for its superstrength and its astounding ability as a superconductor of electricity. Lost in this storm is the fact that hemp may be able to replicate graphene’s function as a supercapacitor, a revolutionary energy storage device, at a radically lower cost . David Mitlin of Clarkson University , New York discovered hemp’s superconductive properties by “cooking” plant material in a process. “Once you dissolve the lignin and the semicellulose, it leaves these carbon nanosheets – a pseudo-graphene structure,” said Mitlin. These nanosheets are then fabricated into electrodes, infused with an ionic liquid as an electrolyte, and function as supercapacitors that work in a wide range of temperatures and conditions. Mitlin founded a small company, Alta Supercaps , with the goal of producing hemp-based supercapacitors on a small scale. Insulation Not only is hemp a durable material for housing structure, it also is an excellent insulator. In Belgium,  Martens Van Caimere Architecten  renovated a local home with a sustainable hemp-based insulation material known as hempcrete . Hempcrete is a mixture of lime, hemp, and water that is superior to concrete in its sustainability and cost while also offering better insulation. “In our projects we try finding solutions to lower the building costs,” said architect Nikolaas Martens. “In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Belgians were building houses that were badly or not insulated. So renovating these houses in a sustainable way tends to be expensive. Hempcrete combines the insulation and finishing in one layer, reducing building costs. Plus it is durable and sustainable, because it is made from a waste product.” Airplanes Fly high in the sky with hemp! In 2014, Canada-based Hempearth  contracted with a Florida-based plane manufacturer to build an airplane almost entirely out of hemp material . The plane will seat four people and have a wingspan of 36 feet. Approximately 75 percent of the plane will be constructed of industrial hemp. Originally scheduled for its first flight (appropriately out of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina) in 2015, the plane has yet to fly. Hempearth is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for their project. Biofuel Not satisfied with simply being made from hemp, the designers at Hempearth also plan for their plane to be powered entirely by hemp-based biofuel . While hemp biodiesel has great potential, there are currently legal and economic barriers to widespread adoption . “That particularly, is very much an issue of economies of scale,” said Arthur Hanks, executive director of the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance. “We are still very much a specialty crop.”  The limited production of hemp is primarily geared towards the health food market, in which hemp provides the greatest return to farmers. “Every pound that’s being produced goes into the food chain,” Paul Bobbee, a Canadian hemp grower. While hemp production is legal in Canada, the continued haziness surrounding hemp policy in the United States suppresses the market.  If hemp production were legalized nationwide, “it would help regularize hemp in America, and help to increase markets,” said Hanks. Food Bring on the munchies. Hemp seeds can be eaten raw, sprouted, or ground up while the iconic hemp leaf can be thrown into a salad. Hemp seeds are high in protein and have a similar amino acid profile to meat, milk, and eggs. Often cold-pressed into oil form, hemp seeds are a rich source of Vitamin B, iron, dietary fiber, magnesium and zinc. Although illegal to produce in most American states, hemp can be imported as a food product. As of 2011, the U.S. imported $11.5 million worth of hemp products. Images via  The Event Chronicle , vhcmor/Flickr , Christina Griffin ,  Cedric Verhelst , Hempearth , FluffyMuppet/Flickr , Wikimedia Commons   (2) , Don Goofy/Flickr , Studio Aisslinger   and Bob Doran/Flickr

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This all-natural native corn is bejeweled with brilliantly colored kernels

January 15, 2017 by  
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Through his quest to reconnect to his roots, Barnes isolated several traditional strains of seeds that fell to the wayside when his ancestors traveled to what’s now Oklahoma in the 1800s . Through years of selective growing , Barnes grew corn that looks bejeweled, creating a colorful celebration of native heirloom varieties of corn. Related: Plant a Wish Restores Native Plant Habitats Around America Barnes didn’t hoard the wealth, however, sharing corn seeds with Native American tribe elders and other growers he encountered. According to SeedBroadcast , “…he was able to reintroduce specific corn types to the elders of those tribes, and this helped their people in reclaiming their cultural and spiritual identities. Their corn was, to them, literally the same as their blood line, their language, and their sense of who they were.” One such grower was Greg Schoen. The two became friends in the early ’90s , and Schoen took the rainbow corn to a new level, creating hybrids by planting the rainbow corn next to typical yellow corn. Schoen eventually passed the seeds to the non-profit organization Native Seeds/SEARCH , who now sell the seeds online . They also protect the seeds in a bank containing around 2,000 rare varieties . Native Seeds/SEARCH began during a project to design sustainable food sources with Native Americans. They continually heard that people wanted to plant the seeds their grandparents did , so the organization started to protect ” endangered traditional seeds ” and the diversity of plants present specifically in the American Southwest. The fabulous corn kernels possess an outer layer tougher than most , which means they aren’t the best for backyard corn-on-the-cob chomping, but they can be either ground for cornmeal or popped like popcorn. You can purchase a packet of the seeds for $4.95 here , and profits go right back to the organization to continue their conservation efforts. Via My Modern Met and Lost At E Minor Images via Glass Gem Corn Facebook

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This all-natural native corn is bejeweled with brilliantly colored kernels

Irish town plans to plant world’s largest giant redwood grove

November 11, 2016 by  
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Lookout northern California ; a small town in central Ireland is vying for the title of most-populous giant redwood grove . Birr plans to plant and grow as many as 3,000 of the massive trees, and you can buy one of your very own. According to the Irish Times, the trees are planned for planting on 20 acres of land at Birr Castle Estate, near the town of Birr in County Offaly. The estate’s owner Lord Rosse, also known as Brendan Parsons, wants to plant a grove of the world’s largest living organisms, which grow to be over 300-feet tall. Redwoods thrive in northern California’s year-round temperate client, but Birr is known to be so cold in the winter that jokes are made about its name. Despite the climatic disparity, Parsons feels his plan is a solid one. “We are experimenters by nature,” the 80-year old lord told the Irish Times. “Trying new things in Birr is an old tradition. It’s absolutely cut out for Birr, this. We never do what other people do. The redwood grove will add a fantastic new dimension to Birr Castle Demesne, in line with the project we already have going on here – and also because of the new concept of a different sort of diaspora, an arboreal diaspora.” Related: Poachers are destroying California’s giant redwood trees According to Parsons, the “arboreal diaspora ” concept comes from the fact that giant redwoods once grew in Ireland – roughly two or three ice ages ago. So he wants to give them another shot at taking root in Irish soil en masse once again. And he is already apparently having some success. “At the moment, we have nine redwoods growing in ones and twos across the demesne: four of one species, five of the other,” he notes. “They were probably planted around the time of the third earl’s death, in the 1860s.” He says the coast redwoods seem to be doing the best, particularly those planted in the wettest places. What with redwoods being an endangered species and all, such a project can’t be cheap to undertake. So Parsons is offering folks an opportunity to participate by sponsoring trees at a cost of 500 Euros (about $540 US) per tree as a tribute to family members who are either living or have lived abroad. You can get yours today by visiting www.giantsgrove.ie . Via Irish Times Images via Kirt Edblom and IceNineJon , Flickr Creative Commons

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Smart Taiga Tower is like having an 80 square foot garden right inside your home

October 11, 2016 by  
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People with limited space know all about the struggle: you want fresh produce but you lack the yard for a big garden and those indoor gardens take up all your counter space.  That’s why we are all about the genius Taiga Tower. It’s a smart home garden that fits in any space and leaves your counters free for chopping up all those fresh herbs you’ll be growing. It’s clever design is big enough for 50 plants – like having an 80 square foot garden inside. Better yet, it has full-spectrum LED lighting and a self-watering system built-in, so even the blackest thumb doesn’t have to suffer in a fresh produce-free nightmare. It even hooks up to an app so you can control everything from your phone. Like I said, genius. https://vimeo.com/183591660#at=121 + Taiga Tower The article above was submitted to us by an Inhabitat reader. Want to see your story on Inhabitat ? Send us a tip by following this link . Remember to follow our instructions carefully to boost your chances of being chosen for publishing!

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Trees form special bonds with "friends and family"

October 7, 2016 by  
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A new documentary , Intelligent Trees , shows a side of trees that most of us have never seen before. Created by German forester Peter Wohlleben and forest ecologist Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia, the film explores the network of roots and fungal threads beneath the forest floor. This network, they say, allows trees to communicate and bond with one another in groups of family and friends. https://vimeo.com/181082721 While conventional wisdom would have us believe that trees simply passively interact with each other, Wohlleben and Simard claim there is so much more going on beneath the surface. Trees of a given species, they explain, actively support one another . They form friendships, and parent trees nurture their children. We can see this in the way that one trees will grow in ways that avoid blocking other trees’ light, or the way they will send out chemical warnings to other trees when attacked by insects. In this way, Wohlleben claims, trees can be said to have emotions like fear and pain, and a “language” that allows them to communicate with one another. Related: Mother trees recognize kin and send them “messages of wisdom” Some may take issue with the way that this narrative anthropomorphizes plant life. Though it may be true they communicate with one another, it’s obviously very different from how humans (or even animals) interact. Wohlleben brushes these criticisms aside, however – in an interview with Treehugger, he explained , “I use a very human language. Scientific language removes all the emotion, and people don’t understand it anymore. When I say, ‘Trees suckle their children,’ everyone knows immediately what I mean.” Intelligent Trees can be streamed at Vimeo On Demand or purchased on DVD. + Intelligent Trees Via Treehugger Images via  Jon Bunting  and  Moyan Brenn

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Elegant planter lamp brings light and nature into any space

September 12, 2016 by  
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The main body of the Milo lamp is ” mouthblown glass ,” and there are holes in the sides to allow easy access for watering. Milo comes with a wooden bowl that fits right onto the bottom of the planter, which itself is designed to keep the plants stable. The lamp can either rest on a desktop or hang from the ceiling. There are three colors: white, natural, and oak. Lightovo suggests planting either flowers, succulents, or herbs in the Milo. There’s even a smaller version, the Milo Baby , that comes in metal or white. Related: These lamps let you grow plants anywhere – even in windowless rooms But the true stars of these planter lamps are the 5.5 watt LED lights that illumine the plant without withering it. The lights have a 4000K color temperature and they’re not too hot for the plants. The lights are meant to imitate sunshine so plants can thrive in the darker days of fall and winter. According to Core77, a plant owner could even leave water in the planter’s bottom to create humidity for plants that prosper in wetter conditions. Janukanis and Krauze write on their website, “Nature is our endless inspiration where we find remedy for everything. We deeply believe that closeness with nature can truly make humans happy and set them free.” The Milo baby lamp runs between 179 and 189 Euros, which is around $200 to $212. The little lamps can be purchased on Lightovo’s website . Those interested in a Milo lamp can enter their email address on the Lightovo website to ask for one. + Lightovo Via Core77 Images via Lightovo Facebook

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Elegant planter lamp brings light and nature into any space

Chinese watermelon plant yields 131 fruit for Guinness World Record

August 25, 2016 by  
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Taking the world “superfruit” to a whole new level, a Chinese watermelon plant just broke a Guinness World Record by sprouting 131 enormous fruit . Each melon weighed an average of 10 kilograms, or 22 pounds, and the whole lot took only 90 days to mature after planting. Not only is the feat super-impressive, but the super plant could have quite an impact on food scarcity issues in the future. Zhengzhou Research Seedling Technology Co., Ltd., a Chinese agricultural technology company, created the mass-producing plant, codenamed “Tianlong 1508.” While typical watermelon plants only yield between one and four fruit, the research team gave some extra TLC to Tianlong 1508, making sure its vines were untangled and it received a daily dose of temperature-controlled water mixed with fertilizer . The hard work paid off, seeing as each and every one of the 131 watermelons survived to grow nice and plump for the harvest. Related: Watermelon power may one day juice your car The melons weighed between 5 and 19 kilograms, or 11 and 41 pounds – a notable accomplishment for only 90 days worth of growth. There is no talk yet of commercializing the plant, but the implications for tackling worldwide hunger are pretty mind-blowing. Right now, however, the company is basking in the glow of smashing the world record for watermelon production. Via Oddity Central Images via Best China News

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Chinese watermelon plant yields 131 fruit for Guinness World Record

7 plants that could save the world

August 5, 2016 by  
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Perennial Wheat Grains are the staple food of humanity: the vast majority of people on the planet eat either rice, wheat, or corn on a daily basis, and those are all annual crops. The issue with annuals, which complete their life cycle in a few months and must then be replanted, is that they require tremendous inputs of water, fertilizer and, often, pesticides, and herbicides, in order to remain productive on the same plot of land each year. The constant tillage required to plant and replant grains slowly degrades soil over time and leads to erosion by water and wind. That said, many modern plant breeders have been hard at work in recent years attempting to domesticate some of the perennial grains that are found in nature, because they require a fraction of the agricultural inputs for the amount of yield when compared to their annual cousins. Researchers at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas are leading the way and have already developed a strain of perennial wheat called Kernza , though they say it may be another ten years before they have perfected it as a crop to replace annual wheat. Azolla Azolla is a tiny floating aquatic fern that grows naturally in wetlands all over the world. Individual azolla ferns are about the size of a thumbtack, but they are considered one of the fastest growing species on the planet, as they can double their quantity every other day in warm shallow water. The reason for this is their ability to absorb atmospheric nitrogen and convert into a form of all-natural, fast-acting fertilizer. Humans have been taking advantage of this trait for millennia, incorporating azolla as a member of aquatic polycultures, primarily in the rice padis of Asia. In recent times, azolla has been grown as a form of organic fertilizer, a source of bio-energy and as a sustainable alternative to corn and soy for use in livestock feed. Its phenomenal growth rate makes it a promising plant for the purposes of carbon sequestration, which is currently under study at the Azolla Institute . Related: INFOGRAPHIC – Edible, Medicinal, or Just Bizarre, Here are 50 Amazing Facts About Plants Algae Algae range in size from unicellular organisms to giant kelp over a hundred feet in length. Like azolla, their aquatic nature allows an incredibly fast growth rate making them a prime target for biological research. Some species are edible, bringing micronutrients into the human diet that are deficient in modern agricultural crops. Some species are grown as organic fertilizer, while others are used in biological filtration of sewage. But the potential of algae as a fuel source is where it gets really exciting. They can grow in shallow water, even salty water, making it possible to produce fuel on land unsuitable for agriculture. Algae grows so fast, it is harvested weekly, rather than annually. It is estimated that 15,000 square miles of algae production could supply the United States with all of its fuel needs – that’s about 1/7 of the land currently planted in corn in this country. Some algae fuel is already being sold and experts predict that by 2025 the technology will be refined to the point where the price per gallon will break even with the cost of petroleum. Sedum Unlike algae and azolla, sedums like it dry. They grow naturally from cracks in the sides of cliffs, meaning they survive both intense heat and extreme cold equally well and have little need for either soil or water. These traits make sedums perfect for vegetating rooftops and walls — they are the preeminent species for living architecture and are already in widespread use for this purpose. Plus, they have beautiful succulent foliage that comes in an array of soft color tones, making it possible for buildings to become living works of art. Bamboo Bamboo is probably the fastest growing terrestrial plant—some species shoot up 2 to 3 feet a day, creating enchanting groves in the process. Bamboo is edible, useful for building and can be used to make fiber, paper and a biodegradable alternative to plastic. Of course, there are many other plants that fulfill these purposes, but bamboo has the advantage of being a perennial grass. It can be harvested again and again without replanting, making it useful for reforestation projects to heal land that has been degraded by conventional forms of forestry and agriculture. Bracken Fern Some plants grow surprisingly well in conditions that are toxic to others. Bracken ferns, which are a weedy fern species growing on disturbed land all over the world, have an uncanny ability to grow in soils polluted with heavy metals, like lead, nickel, cadmium, copper and arsenic. Scientists have been experimenting with using them to remove heavy metals from contaminated industrial sites, as the ferns actually absorb them from the soil and store them in their tissues. After being allowed to mature, the ferns are then harvested and incinerated. The resulting ash contains large quantities of the precious metals which are then recycled for other uses. Related: Before Supermarkets, People Foraged for Food Out in Nature (and We Still Can) Chestnuts Like perennial wheat, chestnuts have the potential to serve as a staple food source that improves environmental quality rather than degrades it, as most modern agricultural systems do. They are enormous trees that live for hundreds of years, and, unlike most nut crops, they are relatively low in protein and high in carbohydrates, with a nutritional composition roughly equivalent to potatoes. Their high-calorie, low-protein nutritional profile makes them one of the only tree nuts suitable as a staple food. In fact, they were the number one staple food in the hilly regions of the Mediterranean basin in southern Europe until the early 19 th century, where they were ground into flour and used for bread. Chestnut trees thrive in the dry, infertile soils of the region, where grains cannot be cultivated on a large scale. Thus, they have the potential to make marginal agricultural lands into highly productive forested landscapes, with all the benefits of natural forests and none of the environmental costs associated with the large-scale production of annual grains.   Images via Shutterstock

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