Heimdal pulls CO2 and cement-making materials out of seawater using renewable energy

One of the consequences of rising CO2 levels in our atmosphere is that levels also rise proportionately in the ocean, harming wildlife and changing ecosystems. Heimdal is a startup working to pull that CO2 back out at scale using renewable energy and producing carbon-negative industrial materials, including limestone for making concrete, in the process, and it has attracted significant funding even at its very early stage.

If the concrete aspect seems like a bit of a non sequitur, consider two facts: concrete manufacturing is estimated to produce as much as eight percent all greenhouse gas emissions, and seawater is full of minerals used to make it. You probably wouldn’t make this connection unless you were in some related industry or discipline, but Heimdal founders Erik Millar and Marcus Lima did while they were working in their respective masters programs at Oxford. “We came out and did this straight away,” he said.

They both firmly believe that climate change is an existential threat to humanity, but were disappointed at the lack of permanent solutions to its many and various consequences across the globe. Carbon capture, Millar noted, is frequently a circular process, meaning it is captured only to be used and emitted again. Better than producing new carbons, sure, but why aren’t there more ways to permanently take them out of the ecosystem?

The two founders envisioned a new linear process that takes nothing but electricity and CO2-heavy seawater and produces useful materials that permanently sequester the gas. Of course, if it was as easy that, everyone would already be doing it.

Heimdal founders Marcus Lima (left) and Erik Millar sitting by a metal gate on stone steps..

Image Credits: Heimdal

“The carbon markets to make this economically viable have only just been formed,” said Millar. And the cost of energy has dropped through the floor as huge solar and wind installations have overturned decades-old power economies. With carbon credits (the market for which I will not be exploring, but suffice it to say it is an enabler) and cheap power come new business models, and Heimdal’s is one of them.

The Heimdal process, which has been demonstrated at lab scale (think terrariums instead of thousand-gallon tanks), is roughly as follows. First the seawater is alkalinized, shifting its pH up and allowing the isolation of some gaseous hydrogen, chlorine, and a hydroxide sorbent. This is mixed with a separate stream of seawater, causing the precipitation of calcium, magnesium, and sodium minerals and reducing the saturation of CO2 in the water — allowing it to absorb more from the atmosphere when it is returned to the sea. (I was shown an image of the small-scale prototype facility but, citing pending patents, Heimdal declined to provide the photo for publication.)

A diagram describing Heimdal's carbon extraction process

Image Credits: Heimdal

So from seawater and electricity, they produce hydrogen and chlorine gas, Calcium Carbonate, Sodium Carbonate, and Magnesium Carbonate, and in the process sequester a great deal of dissolved CO2.

For every kiloton of seawater, one ton of CO2 is isolated, and two tons of the carbonates, each of which has an industrial use. MgCO3 and Na2CO3 are used in, among other things, glass manufacturing, but it’s CaCO3, or limestone, that has the biggest potential impact.

As a major component of the cement-making process, limestone is always in great demand. But current methods for supplying it are huge sources of atmospheric carbon. All over the world industries are investing in carbon reduction strategies, and while purely financial offsets are common, moving forward the preferred alternative will likely be actually carbon-negative processes.

To further stack the deck in its favor, Heimdal is looking to work with desalination plants, which are common around the world where fresh water is scarce but seawater and energy are abundant, for example the coasts of California and Texas in the U.S., and many other areas globally, but especially where deserts meet the sea, like in the MENA region.

Desalination produces fresh water and proportionately saltier brine, which generally has to be treated, as to simply pour it back into the ocean can throw the local ecosystem out of balance. But what if there were, say, a mineral-collecting process between the plant and the sea? Heimdal gets the benefit of more minerals per ton of water, and the desalination plant has an effective way of handling its salty byproduct.

“Heimdal’s ability to use brine effluent to produce carbon-neutral cement solves two problems at once,” said Yishan Wong, former Reddit CEO, now CEO of Terraformation and individually an investor in Heimdal. “It creates a scalable source of carbon-neutral cement, and converts the brine effluent of desalination into a useful economic product. Being able to scale this together is game-changing on multiple levels.”

Terraformation is a big proponent of solar desalination, and Heimdal fits right into that equation; the two are working on an official partnership that should be announced shortly. Meanwhile a carbon-negative source for limestone is something cement makers will buy every gram of in their efforts to decarbonize.

Wong points out that the primary cost of Heimdal’s business, beyond the initial ones of buying tanks, pumps, and so on, is that of solar energy. That’s been trending downwards for years and with huge sums being invested regularly there’s no reason to think that the cost won’t continue to drop. And profit per ton of CO2 captured — already around 75 percent of over $500-$600 in revenue — could also grow with scale and efficiency.

Millar said that the price of their limestone is, when government incentives and subsidies are included, already at price parity with industry norms. But as energy costs drop and scales rise, the ratio will grow more attractive. It’s also nice that their product is indistinguishable from “natural” limestone. “We don’t require any retrofitting for the concrete providers — they just buy our synthetic calcium carbonate rather than buy it from mining companies,” he explained.

All in all it seems to make for a promising investment, and though Heimdal has not yet made its public debut (that would be forthcoming at Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 Demo Day) it has attracted a $6.4 million seed round. The participating investors are Liquid2 Ventures, Apollo Projects, Soma Capital, Marc Benioff, Broom Ventures, Metaplanet, Cathexis Ventures, and as mentioned above, Yishan Wong.

Heimdal has already signed LOIs with several large cement and glass manufacturers, and is planning its first pilot facility at a U.S. desalination plant. After providing test products to its partners on the scale of tens of tons, they plan to enter commercial production in 2023.

Luminate aims to make hair loss from chemotherapy a thing of the past

Hair loss resulting from chemotherapy is one of the most recognizable side effects in all of medicine, and for many is an unwanted public announcement of their condition and treatment. Luminate Medical may have a solution in a medical wearable that prevents the chemical cocktail from tainting hair follicles, preventing the worst of the loss and perhaps relegating this highly visible condition to the past.

When Luminate CEO Aaron Hannon and his co-founder Bárbara Oliveira were asking patients and doctors about areas of cancer treatment that they could perhaps innovate in, “we were just astonished at how much hair loss dominated the conversation,” said Hannon. “So from then on out we’ve just been laser focused on making that something that doesn’t exist any more.”

When a patient is undergoing chemotherapy, the cancer-inhibiting drugs course through their entire body — anywhere the blood goes. This has a variety of side effects, like weakness and nausea, and on a longer time scale hair loss occurs as the substances affect the follicles. Luminate’s solution, developed in partnership with the National University of Ireland Galway, is to prevent the blood from reaching those cells in the first place.

Image of a woman wearing the Luminate headset.

Image Credits: Luminate

The device that effects this is a sort of mechanized compression garment for the head. If that sounds a bit sinister, don’t worry — the pressure comes from air bladders and pads pressing against the scalp, not screws or plates; Hannon says that it isn’t uncomfortable and pressure is carefully monitored.

There’s also no risk of damage from lack of blood flow in those cells. “Compression therapy has been really well studied,” he said. “There are years of literature around how long you can apply these therapies without damaging the cells. There’s a certain amount of mechanical engineering involved in making it both comfortable and effective.”

The patient wears the cap during and after the whole chemo session. By restricting blood flow to the skin of the scalp only, it allows the drugs to flow unimpeded to wherever the tumor or cancer site is while saving the hair follicles from damage.

Tests have been done on animals, which saw hair retention of around 80 percent with no adverse effects — and while full human trials are something that will need some time and approval to set up, initial tests of the headset’s bloodflow-blocking effects on healthy patients showed that it works exactly as expected on people as well.

“We’re really excited about the efficacy of this therapy because it works with lots of hair types,” said Hannon. That’s a real consideration, since a tech that only worked with short hair, straight hair, or some other subset of hairstyles would exclude far too many people.

Luminate's app showing how long is left in therapy for the user.

Image Credits: Luminate / Wild Island Pictures

As for competition, although there are some new treatments that cool the scalp instead of compressing it, Hannon noted that the most money is spent by far on wigs. An average of a thousand dollars per patient who opts for a wig means there’s considerable leeway for a device in that neighborhood.

Although hair loss is considered a medical condition by many insurance companies and other methods of reimbursement, and wigs are often covered, it will take time and lots of evidence to get Luminate’s device approved for those processes. But the team is confident that at around $1,500, the device is within the means of many as long as other costs are being picked up by insurance. People do, after all, spend that much and more not just on wigs but on other hair retention products and methods. If there was a checkbox for “don’t lose hair” on the chemo forms with a $1,500 price tag, a whole lot of people would check it without a second thought.

Cofounders Bárbara Oliveira (left) and Aaron Hannon.

Image Credits: Luminate

Ultimately, however, Luminate wants to be able to offer the device also to those who can’t afford the cost out of pocket, so they are progressing towards FDA approval and a U.S. launch, with Europe and others to come.

 

So far Luminate, just graduating from Y Combinator’s Summer 2021 batch, has been lucky enough to operate on funds provided through grants from the Irish government, which are of course non-dilutive. While more capital will almost certainly be required come time for scaling and international launch, right now the team is focused on getting the device into the hands (and onto the heads) of its first set of patients.

On the future of walls, or The Wall

Space may be the endless frontier, but here on Earth, we define space in the modern sense as something enclosed. Walls, fences and barriers enclose space, define it and make it legible. In fact, the sense of limits is so strong these days with place that we often have to add qualifiers like “open space” to describe wholly natural environments like parks and forests as places without spatial limits.

While enclosures have been with us for centuries, the barriers they raise have never been so high or politically fraught. In the United States, one of the most controversial aspects of the Trump administration was over the erection of a southern border wall with Mexico. With climate change accelerating and migrants increasing all around the world though, walls are becoming a common occurrence and political tool. Just this week, Greece erected fencing along its border with Turkey in preparation for an expected deluge of Afghan refugees fleeing violence in the wake of the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul.

John Lanchester has taken these themes of barriers, fear, and politics and intensified them in his atmospheric novel appropriately titled “The Wall.”

The conceit is simple: a thinly-disguised United Kingdom, ravaged by climate change and heavy migration from outside the island, erects a universal wall across all of its shores, posting sentries every few meters or so to monitor the barriers for any potential intruders. Their sole mission: to keep them out, whoever they might be. Failure is symbolically punished with exile and banishment, with the watchers becoming the watched.

We predominantly follow a pair of sentries who, as the above rule all but implicates for the plot, will become exiled in the course of their duties. What we get then is a meditation on the meaning of home, and also the meaning of barriers and dislocation in a world that is increasingly hostile to being a refuge for much of anyone.

While the plot and characters are a bit lackluster, what is fascinating with the novel is how well it manages to create an environment and ambiance of dread, of a society at the end of its journey. People live, parties are hosted, work is done, but all these activities takes place in a world where the jet stream has presumably disappeared, plunging our hypothetical U.K. into the cold abyss. That theme of gray, morose darkness exudes throughout the book, describing everything from the construction of the wall itself to the personalities of the people that inhabit this world.

That’s the ironic tension that propels the book forward, of global warming heating us up while we simultaneously develop the distant sangfroid to fight the ravaging effects of that heat. We are human, but wooden, divorced from the connection and community we have known in order to protect what little we have left.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

That social coolness also inhabits a new set of class differences, not only between native citizens and refugees, but between generations as well. The younger generation, coming to terms with what has happened to their planet, simply no longer follow the instructions of their supposedly wise elders. A mental barrier has been constructed: how can you learn lessons from the people who allowed this to happen? Yet, the boiling anger has long since cooled to an isolated frostiness — acceptance of reality forces the inter-generational conversation to just move on.

Lanchester is astute and subtle in these extensions of the premise, and they are the most enjoyable part of what is — intentionally — a colorless work. The irony again is that this is probably best read on the beach in the middle of summer, an antidote to the heat of our world. I wouldn’t recommend it for the winter months.

There has been more and more “climate fiction” published over the past few years as the issue of climate change has reached prominence in the global consciousness. Many of these are offshoots of science fiction, with long and meandering discussions of technology, policies, and markets and more depending on the work. That can provide intellectual succor in a way and for a certain type of reader.

What Lanchester does is eschew the minutia and technologies pretty much entirely and instead simply situates us in a realistic future — a space that could even be our home. The limits of our imagination are compacted and we are forced to think in tighter quarters. It’s a thought-provoking look at a world whose frontiers are coming closer and closer to all of us all the time.


The Wall by John Lanchester
W. W. Norton, 2019, 288 pages

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Air conditioning is one of the greatest inventions of the 20th Century. It’s also killing the 21st

When did indoor air become cold and clean?

Air conditioning is one of those inventions that have become so ubiquitous, that many in the developed world don’t even realize that less than a century ago, it didn’t exist. Indeed, it wasn’t so long ago that the air inside our buildings and the air outside of them were one and the same, with occupants powerless against their environment.

Eric Dean Wilson, in his just published book, “After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort,” dives deep into the history of this field. It took more than just inventing the air conditioner to make people want to buy it. In fact, whole social classes outright rejected the technology for years. It took hustle, marketing skill, and mass societal change to place air conditioning at the center of our built environment.

Wilson covers that history, but he has a more ambitious agenda: to get us to see how our everyday comforts affect other people. Our choice of frigid cooling emits flagrant quantities of greenhouse gas emissions, placing untold stress on our planet and civilization. Our pursuit of comfort ironically begets us more insecurity and ultimately, less comfort.

It’s a provocative book, and TechCrunch hosted Wilson for a discussion earlier this week on a Twitter Space. If you missed it, here are some selected highlights of our conversation.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Danny Crichton: The framing story throughout the book is about your travels with your friend Sam, who works to collect Freon and destroy it. Why did you choose that narrative arc?

Eric Dean Wilson: Sam at the time was working for this green energy company, and they were trying to find a way to take on green projects that would turn a profit. They had found that they could do this by finding used Freon, specifically what’s called CFC-12. It’s not made anymore, thank goodness, but it was responsible in part for partially destroying the ozone layer, and production of it was banned by the 90s.

But use of it, and buying and selling it on the secondary market, is totally legal. This is sort of a loophole in the legality of this refrigerant, because the United States government and the people who signed the Montreal Protocol thought that when they stopped production of it that it would pretty much get rid of Freon by the year 2000. Well, that didn’t happen, which is kind of a mystery.

So Sam was driving around the United States, finding Freon on the internet, and meeting people (often people who are auto hobbyists or mechanics or something like that) who happened to have stockpiled Freon, and he was buying it from them in order to destroy it for carbon credits on California’s cap-and-trade system. And the interesting thing about this is that he was going to basically the 48 contiguous states, and meeting people that were often global warming deniers who were often hostile to the idea of the refrigerant being destroyed at all, so he often didn’t tell them upfront that he was destroying it.

What was really interesting to me is that, aside from a cast of colorful and strange characters, and sometimes violent characters actually as well, was the fact that sometimes after establishing a business relationship first, he was able to have really frank conversations about global warming with people who were otherwise not very open to it.

In a time in which we’re told that Americans are more divided than ever politically, that we’re not speaking to each other across ideological divides, I thought this was a curious story.

Crichton: And when it comes to greenhouse gases, Freon is among the worst, right?

Wilson: I should be really clear that the main global warming gases are carbon dioxide and methane and some other ones as well. But molecule for molecule, CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) are thousands of times greater at absorbing and retaining heat, meaning that they’re just thousands of times worse for global warming, molecule for molecule. So even though there’s not that many of them in terms of parts per million in the atmosphere, there’s enough to really make a sizable contribution to global warming.

The irony is that the replacements of CFCs — HFCs (hydrofluorocarbons) — for the most part, don’t really do anything to destroy the ozone layer, which is great. But they’re also super global warming gases. So the ozone crisis was solved by replacing CFCs with refrigerant that exacerbated the global warming crisis.

Crichton: Now to get to the heart of the book, you focus on the rise of air conditioning, but you start by giving readers a wide view of what life was like before its invention. Why did you do that?

Wilson: This was a surprise — I did not go into the book thinking that I was going to find this. Before air conditioning really took off in the home, there was a really different sense of what we would call personal comfort, and something that I really argue in the book is that what we’ve come to think of as personal comfort, and specifically, thermal comfort, has changed. What I argue in the book is that it’s really in part a cultural construction.

Now, I want to be really careful that people don’t hear that I’m saying that it’s entirely a construction. Yes, when we get too hot or too cold, then we can die, for sure. But what’s really interesting to me is that there’s a lot of evidence to show that before air conditioning began at the beginning of the twentieth century, people weren’t really hungry for air conditioning.

There was this greater sense that you could deal with the heat. I put that really carefully, because I don’t want to say that they suffered through it. Certainly there were heat waves and summers that got too hot. But there was a real sense that you could manage the heat through analog ways, like sleeping outside, sleeping in parks, or designing buildings that incorporate passive cooling. The thing that really disturbed me was that through the twentieth century, we really kind of forgot all that, because we didn’t need that knowledge anymore because we had air conditioning. So modernist architecture began to kind of ignore the outside conditions, because you could construct whatever conditions you wanted inside.

I think the question that nobody really asked all along is, is this good for everyone? Should we have a homogenized standard of comfort? Nobody really asked that question. And there’s a lot of people that find that the kind of American model of an office or American model of comfort is not comfortable, both in the United States, and in other places.

Crichton: Even beyond a homogenized standard though, you want readers to understand how comfort connects all of us together.

Wilson: I think that one of the pernicious things about the American definition of comfort is that it has been defined as personal comfort. And the reason why I keep using that is because it’s defined as individual comfort. And so what would it mean to think about comfort as being always connected to somebody else, as more ethical that way? Because it’s true.

The truth is that our comfort is related to other people, and vice versa. It’s really asking us to think interdependently, instead of independently, which is how we’re often encouraged to think, and that’s a huge, huge ask. Actually, that’s a huge task and a huge paradigm shift. But I really think if we’re really trying to think ecologically, and not just sustainably, we have to think about how we’re all connected and how these infrastructures, how they influence other people in other parts of the world.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

Crichton: Air conditioning didn’t take off right away. In fact, its inventors and customers really had to push hard to get people to want to use it.

Wilson: Air conditioning really got its start in the early twentieth century, in order to control the conditions in factories. I was surprised to find out that air conditioning was used in places to make things hotter, or more humid and slightly hotter in a place like a textile factory, where if it’s not humid enough, cotton threads can break.

Outside the factory, movie theaters were really the first time that thermal comfort was used as a commodity. There were all kinds of other commodifications of comfort, but this was really the first time that the public could go someplace to feel cooler. And the funny thing is is that most movie theaters in the 20s and 30s were freezing cold, they were not what I would call comfortable, because the people who were running them didn’t really understand that air conditioning works best when it’s noticed least, which is a hard sell. In the 20s, though, it was a novelty, and the way that you caught people’s attention on a summer day was to crank the AC up, which felt good for like five minutes, and then it was terribly uncomfortable and you had to shiver through an hour and a half of the rest of the movie.

Crichton: I’m jumping ahead, but what does the future look like as global warming persists and our cooling increases in line with that heat?

Wilson: In so many cooling situations, there are major alternatives, like redesigning our buildings so that they require way less energy and way less cooling. There are really amazing architects who are looking to things like termite mounds, because the colonies that they build sort of have brilliantly engineered rooms with different temperatures.

That said, I was surprised how much our opinion on comfort could change by simply understanding that it could change. I think that we have to make the world of tomorrow desirable, and we can take a nod from the commercial advertising industry. We have to sell this future as one that we actually want, not as something that we’re giving up. And I think the narrative is always like, “Oh, we have to stop doing this, we have to lower this, we have to give this up.” And that’s certainly true. But I think if we understand that as not something that we’re giving up, but actually something that we’re gaining, then it makes it a lot easier. For people, it makes it feel a lot more possible.


After Cooling: On Freon, Global Warming, and the Terrible Cost of Comfort by Eric Dean Wilson.

Simon & Schuster, 2021, 480 pages

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How national security is being redefined by climate change

One of the most unfortunate fault lines in climate change politics today is the lack of cooperation between environmentalists and the national security community. Left-wing climate activists don’t exactly hang out with more right-leaning military strategists, the former often seeing the latter as destructive anti-ecological marauders, while the latter often assume the former are unrealistic pests who would prioritize trees and dolphins over human safety.

Yet, climate change is forcing the two to work ever closer together, as uncomfortable as that might be.

In “All Hell Breaking Loose,” emeritus professor and prolific author Michael T. Klare has written a meta-assessment of the Pentagon’s strategic assessments from the last two decades on how climate will shape America’s security environment. Sober and repetitive but not grim, the book is an eye-opening look at how the defense community is coping with one of the most vexing global challenges today.

Climate change weakens the security environment in practically every domain, and in ways that might not be obvious to the non-defense specialist. For the U.S. Navy, which relies on coastal access to shipyards and ports, rising sea levels threaten to diminish and even occasionally demolish its mission readiness, such as when Atlantic hurricanes hit Virginia, one of the largest centers for naval infrastructure in the United States.

While perhaps obvious, it bears repeating that the U.S. military is as much a landlord as a fighting force, with hundreds of bases spread across the country and around the world. A large percentage of these installations face climate-related challenges that can affect mission readiness, and the cost to harden these facilities is likely to reach tens of billions of dollars — and perhaps even more.

Then there is the question of energy. The Pentagon is understandably one of the greatest users of energy in the world, requiring power for bases, jet fuel for planes, and energy for ships on a global scale. Procurement managers are obviously concerned about costs, but their real concern is availability — they need to have reliable fuel options in even the most chaotic environments. That critical priority is increasingly tenuous with climate change, as transit options for oil can be disrupted by everything from a bad storm to a ship stuck in the Suez Canal.

This is where the Pentagon’s mission and the interests of green-minded activists align heavily, if not perfectly. Klare provides examples of how the Pentagon is investing in areas like biofuels, decentralized grid technology, batteries and more as it looks to secure resiliency for its fighting forces. The Pentagon’s budgetary resources might be scorned by critics, but it’s uniquely positioned to pay the so-called green premiums for more reliable energy in ways that few institutions can realistically afford.

That political alignment continues when it comes to humanitarian response, although for vastly different reasons. One of the Pentagon’s chief concerns with global warming is that it will be increasingly waylaid from its highest priority missions — such as protecting against China, Russia, Iran and other long-time adversaries — into responding to humanitarian crises. As one of the only American institutions with the equipment and logistical know-how capable of deploying thousands of responders to disaster zones, the Pentagon is the go-to source for deployments. For Defense, the difficulty is that the armed forces aren’t trained for humanitarian missions — they’re trained for fighting wars. Attacking ISIS-K and managing a camp of climate refugees are decidedly different skills.

Climate activists are fighting for a more stable and equitable world, one that doesn’t lead to millions of climate refugees fleeing from famine and scorching temperatures. The Pentagon similarly wants to shore up fragile states in the hopes of avoiding deployments outside of its core mission. The two groups speak different languages and have different motivations, but the objectives are much the same.

Climate Change Books Summer 2021

The most interesting dynamic of climate change and national security is, of course, how the global strategic map changes. Russia is a major winner, and Klare provides an exacting account on how the Pentagon is securing the Arctic now that the ice has melted and shipping lanes have opened at the pole for much of the year and soon to be year round. For the first time, America has run training missions for its armed forces on how to operate in the Arctic and prepare for potential contingencies in the region.

Klare’s book is readable, and its subject is electrifyingly fascinating, but this is not a brilliantly written text by any stretch of the imagination. I dubbed it a meta-assessment because it absolutely reads as if it was written by a team of defense planning specialists in the E Ring. It’s a multi-hundred page think tank paper — and as a reader, you either have the stamina to read that or you don’t.

More caustically, the book’s research and primary citations center on the Pentagon’s assessment reports and Congressional testimony and some secondary reporting in newspapers and elsewhere. There are few to no mentions of direct interviews with the participants here, and that’s a major problem given the extremely political nature of climate change in modern U.S. discourse. Klare certainly observes the politics, but we don’t know what generals and the civilian defense leadership would really say if they didn’t have to sign off publicly on a government report. It’s a massive gulf — and begs the question of how much we really get a true picture of the Pentagon’s thinking with this volume.

Nonetheless, the book is an important contribution, and a reminder that the national security community — while protective of its interests — can also be an important vanguard for change on climate disruption. Activists and wonks should drop the animosity and talk to each other a bit more often, as there are alliances to be made.


All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change by Michael T. Klare
Metropolitan Books, 2019, 304 pages

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