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Rare Earths 101: Digging Up the Facts, with Jordy Lee

In this episode, host Daniel Raimi talks with Jordy Lee, a senior research associate at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. Lee closely studies rare earth minerals, a group of 17 chemically similar elements that are durable, have a variety of modern uses, and are essential components of many renewable technologies. Lee expands on why the costs and environmental impacts make mining rare earths a challenging proposition, and how China has come to dominate the market in a way that other nations may struggle to replicate.

Listen to the Podcast

Notable Quotes

  • China dominates the global rare earths market: “Not only [is China] the processing powerhouse, but they also have a large distribution of rare earths that they’ve found and that are a lot easier to access … They’re already set up to win. Anybody that tries to get into that market now has to face China’s price control. They have to challenge China’s commitment to producing despite the environmental costs. They have to face all these other challenges that are associated with rare earths.” (17:15)
  • The United States confronts hard choices with rare earths: “The United States is still trying to figure out if we want to start developing [rare earth materials] locally, or if we want to start making partnerships in South America and Africa for different resources. Rare earths are especially difficult because [they’re] difficult to mine and difficult to process, and there are environmental issues … It’s more complex than people think it is.” (23:11)
  • Renewable energy will rely on rare earth mining: “When people talk about the material considerations of renewable technologies, they say we’re going to need 1,000 percent more rare earths or we’re going to need 400 percent more lithium for all the batteries that we have to make. These types of conversations are really valuable in that they show how unprepared we are … Renewables are just so much more material intensive than fossil fuels, and that’s not something people know about.” (24:53)

Top of the Stack

  • Sustain What? podcast from The Earth Institute at Columbia University

The Full Transcript

Daniel Raimi: Hello, and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Daniel Raimi. This week, we talked with Jordy Lee, senior research associate at the Payne Institute for Public Policy at the Colorado School of Mines. Jordy will give us answers to some key questions about rare earth minerals, which are used widely in clean energy technologies, including wind, solar and energy storage. He’ll help us understand what rare earths are, whether they are literally rare, how they are mined and processed around the world, and their geopolitical implications. It’s a fascinating topic, so stay with us.

Okay, Jordy Lee from the Payne Institute at the Colorado School of Mines, thank you so much for joining us today on Resources Radio.

Jordy Lee: Thank you for having me.

Daniel Raimi: Jordy, we’re going to talk today about rare earths and rare earth elements. We’re going to sort of define what those are and talk about why they’re important in the context of clean energy. But before we do that, we always ask our guests how they got interested in working on energy and environmental issues. How did it happen for you?

Jordy Lee: I have a petroleum engineering degree from Colorado School of Mines, and I remember that when I was about to graduate, I started asking a lot of questions about the future of oil and gas, and my professors thought it was interesting, and they sent me to the basement of Engineering Hall, which is the oldest building on campus, and I ended up talking to Morgan Bazilian for an hour about how the oil industry was shaping up. Then he mentioned that he was looking for a writer for an academic paper he was trying to write, and he asked me to help him with it, and then I loved it. I loved asking those questions and chasing those answers, and then I ended up joining the institute after I graduated.

Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Fantastic. The Payne Institute—it is located in that old building, right? The engineering building?

Jordy Lee: Yeah. It’s the oldest building on campus. It’s a beautiful old orange kind of brick building. It’s been there, I think, almost 150 years now. So, it’s really cool. Yeah, the Payne Institute’s in the building with the Critical Materials Institute, the CMI, and a lot of great programs there. So it’s really cool to be part of that program.

Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Awesome. Well, let’s get into our conversation now and talk a little bit about rare earth elements and try to understand what they are and how they play a role in clean energy in particular. Can we start off with just defining the term? Can you give us a working definition of rare earth elements and help us understand how they’re used widely across the economy, and then how they’re used in the energy sector?

Jordy Lee: Rare earth elements refer to a group of 17 elements that have similar electron configurations. That means they have very distinct physical and chemical properties. They’re like that bottom kind of floating row, there’s two floating rows if you look at the periodic table, they’re the top of that floating row, so they’re kind of weird.

The name apparently comes from the difficulties that nineteenth-century chemists had in separating the elements from each other. They also denoted that rare earth’s usually stable as earths, which refers to oxides. So, it’s just oxygen with another mineral. Most of the earth’s crust is made of oxide, so what you end up getting is you have these really difficult to separate earth essentially, so you end up getting rare earth elements, and that’s kind of where the name comes from.

They were using that name before they started categorizing elements into their cool categories. Their special properties allowed them to provide magnetic and strength characteristics to different end use products, or for them to act as catalysts for different chemical processes. That means if you add them to different metals or if you use them when you’re making different processes, the end products get superpowers, I guess you could say. Some common uses would be making magnets, you get really strong magnets, lasers, stronger, lighter metals, they use them in optics. A lot of different technologies and different electronics use them. You’ll see some in your cell phones, like on the screen to make the glass harder sometimes, and different electronics. The Department of Defense uses them for missiles. They’re used in a lot of really modern technologies and they do a lot of really cool stuff, and there’s a lot of them, right? There’s 17. So they have different uses.

For clean energy, they’re primarily used for really strong magnets, especially for newer wind turbines. The traditional wind turbine—everyone can picture one. It’s like these three spinning blades, which are then connected to this gearbox. It’s connected to a bunch of gears that spin a generator inside and generates electricity with copper windings and a magnetic field. When you have a wind turbine, you have this giant spinning fan with a lot of gears and moving parts and they’re under immense strain. It’s not really very stable, especially with wind turbulence. The gears get broken and they’re one of the first parts to fail. But if you use magnets, if you use these cool, rare earth magnets, what happens is you have a lot simpler of a wind turbine.

It doesn’t have all these little gears in it. That’s really important for when we’re placing these in the middle of the ocean. If you’re placing a giant spinning fan in the ocean, it’s in your best interest to make it as robust and simple as possible. It’s kind of a pain to send a mechanic out there to go fix giant gears in the middle of the North Sea or something.

That’s why they’re becoming really important for renewables in wind energy because they take this complex machine and it’s like, yeah, let’s just use the magic of magnets and it’ll make it simpler. Also in electric motors for electric vehicles, they also use permanent magnets. You’ll see a lot of talk for rare earths and discussion of the big three, which are wind turbines and electric vehicles and then photovoltaics, so solar panels. But solar panels have other material issues than rare earths. For the ones we usually talk about, there’s usually two: Neodymium and Dysprosium. Those are the two of the 17 that are really popular for making rare earth magnets. They’re the ones that people usually talk about in the context of renewable technologies.

Daniel Raimi: Great. That’s really, really helpful. One thing that you pointed out, that certainly I didn’t understand when I first started learning about this subject, is that the name, rare earth elements, doesn’t necessarily mean that they are rare in the sense that they’re not necessarily scarce. But can you speak to that question directly and help us understand how the resources are distributed around the world and what the resource base looks like?

Jordy Lee: Something that a lot of people will mention is that rare earths aren’t that rare. That’s how a lot of people view how common different minerals and materials are, they look at the earth’s composition and they’re like, it’s pretty common in the earth’s crust, we shouldn’t be worried about it. But that’s not really what’s important for rare earths because they’re relatively well dispersed. Where you might find large amounts of copper in a single area or you might find these huge veins of gold, for rare earths, that’s not really the case. They’re very spread out and embedded in other rocks and minerals. They’re still a lot more common than gold and a lot more common than platinum group metals. But they’re relatively rare in that they’re very well spread out. If you could think of it as like a dusting of salt, as opposed to like a big rock you put on your table.

We do know of some sources that we could potentially extract, even in the United States. We’ve been doing it for a while. There’s even talk of geothermal brines, seabed mining. There’s little nodules on the bottom of the ocean, even talking about recovering them from coal. But it’s more of a processing economics balance problem than it is a resources reserves problem. Because especially when you consider that the type of rock or deposit then tells us about the composition. There’s a couple of different rocks that each have a different composition of rare earths. I mentioned that there were 17 of them and they often occur jointly. What you might find is you might have a rock that has 10 of them together, and then you might have one that has a different 10.

They’re not always the ones you’re looking for and that’s a difficult issue. It’s the secret truth of why rare earths are so rare, is that it’s very difficult to process and separate them. China has some of the largest reserves. Aside from having to compete with China supporting this industry and all their environmental concerns and finding high enough rare earth concentrations, processing separating the individual rare earths is a really challenging process, technologically. It’s very expensive and it’s very energy intensive and it’s a multi-step process you can’t really expedite or do in large quantities. That’s why it’s really difficult. A problem that most people don’t understand is that the processing is the hardest part, not necessarily finding it. Everyone was talking about opening up rare earth mines and that the US shouldn’t worry because rare earths aren’t that rare.

If they’re a little bit more informed, they’ll start talking about how the United States is opening rare earth mines and processing facilities and separation facilities and that the United States shouldn’t worry. If they’re really well-informed, then they wonder what the processing facilities are going to work on, what they’re separating, what they’re going to do with different waste, and how they’re going to compete with the insane costs from competing with an entire country like China to make rare earths. It’s kind of a multi-tiered problem. It always worries me when I see those headlines that say rare earths aren’t that rare. That’s true, but they’re really complex and they’re really difficult and to refine them, needs mostly site-specific processing and refining. That’s why we send everything to China. We do have a rare earth mine in the United States. It’s Mountain Pass Mine in California.

But it’s so difficult and cost intensive to process and separate them into individual rare earth elements that they end up shipping it to China, and then China does it for us. That’s why we have this huge dependence on China for rare earths. Not necessarily because we can’t make them, but because it’s such a pain and such an expensive process and chemically intensive, and it’s electricity intensive. We can mine it just fine, and then we end up shipping it to China and then China sells it back to us with a bunch of tariffs and premiums. It’s not really a good system. Be wary, if you ever see those headlines, rare earths aren’t that rare. You should see what else they’re saying.

Daniel Raimi: Right. That’s really interesting. You mentioned the waste products from processing these rare earths. Can you tell us a little bit more about what some of those local environmental risks might look like, whether it’s from the mining process itself or if it’s more from the refining side as you were mentioning?

Jordy Lee: As far as I understand it, it’s separation and processing that’s kind of the big concern. There’s multiple steps to separation and processing in the last final separation is the difficult one. But what happens is when you separate and process the oars and minerals, they often contain uranium and thorium, which is named after the God of thunder because chemists are cool.

Daniel Raimi: Thor?

Jordy Lee: Yeah.

Daniel Raimi: Yeah.

Jordy Lee: Got a big mallet or whatever.

Yeah, the hammer of Thor. When you separate and process them, you end up with uranium and thorium, which are radioactive. They end up falling into a category of waste called “technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive materials,” which is as scary as most people think it is. It’s just super concentrated, technologically enhanced radioactive waste. The United States used to have one of the largest mines in Mountain Pass, California for rare earths, and when they set environmental restrictions along with declining prices last time, the mine went bankrupt. They’ve gone bankrupt a few times. For us, we don’t really know exactly what the environmental impacts are anymore because China’s the one that’s making most of it and they don’t have a great track record with transparency for some of their mining processes. There have been reports and investigations into radioactivity and waste from mining processes and they don’t really say anything good.

There’s also a problem with artisanal rare earth mining in parts of China. There’s parts of China that are actually doing their own mining on a small scale for rare earths because they’re so valuable. Then you also see companies like Lynas Corp are one of the main competitors of China for their rare earth market. They lost half their stock value a few years ago because Malaysia got uncomfortable with having a bunch of radioactive waste on their land. I think that’s probably the most reflective of the environmental problems that we’ll see if we try to develop these in the United States or other developed countries, is that people don’t really want a lot of radioactive waste, even if it’s handled properly. China doesn’t really have as many environmental restrictions as California does. We don’t really know too much. We can guess, but it’s difficult to say what exactly the environmental impacts are when one country is doing most of it and they’re not being super transparent about it.

Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah, that makes sense. You mentioned these small artisanal mines. One of the things that I think people think about when they think about rare earths is you might think about news stories that you seen about, let’s say cobalt mining, in places like Democratic Republic of Congo, where the mining can be quite environmentally damaging, but also rely on child labor. Is that an issue that you’ve heard about in China or is it again, something that’s not very transparent?

Jordy Lee: I’ve heard about artisanal mining in China, but I think the process they do is involving large leaching pools and it’s kind of a different process than you would see in the Congo. For the Congo, when they do cobalt mining, cobalt occurs as a hard rock embedded in other minerals and metals. That’s why you see these children minors digging by hand because they can just pick it up and then they can go to this middleman and sell it to them for pennies on the dollar, and that’s the process. But for rare earths, it’s a bit more complex, using leaching ponds and these chemicals sitting in these vats that are made out of plastic tarps. It’s not too much of a mining issue from the artisanal side, I think. It’s still an issue in that they’re not being responsible with their mining practices and I’m sure that some radioactive waste is leaking out and that they’re using these dangerous chemicals.

It’s very damaging to communities in that sense, but it’s not necessarily the child labor that you would see in the DRC. I think the DRC has a huge problem with their resource governance and that they have a large population that could benefit from sustainable mining practices. In China, it’s such a complex process and the government’s really involved in it and they’re really involved in mining and processing. It’s not as big of an issue I think, in China.

Daniel Raimi: Okay, that makes sense. One other issue that I think a lot of people are thinking about and certainly has been written about in new stories is just the geopolitical considerations around rare earth. You mentioned that China has really become the dominant processor and perhaps producer of rare earths as well. Given our current understanding of where the resource space is and also where the processing infrastructure is, are there clear geopolitical winners or losers in the way that the rare earths are distributed or is it all about the processing?

Jordy Lee: There are definitely winners and losers. There’s definitely different types of rocks that are easier to process and that might have higher concentrations of the rare earths you’re looking for. Mount Weld in Australia is known for that. China does have a large distribution as well. Not only are they the processing powerhouse, but they also do have a large distribution of rare earths that they’ve found, and that are a lot easier to access. I mentioned different types of rocks, and there’s some flow charts online you can look up that’ll show you the different processing steps depending on the type of rock you have. China’s is really nice and neat and very clear, so they are definitely a winner in that sense.

They also are a winner in the sense that it’s such a powerful political tool for them to have invested in and they’re already set up to win. Anybody that tries to get into that market now has to face China’s price control. They have to challenge China’s commitment to producing despite the environmental costs. They have to face all these other challenges that are associated with rare earths.

Also China has a really easy way of extracting and separating these as opposed to some other process. I guess it’s a little bit like Saudi Arabia, if we’re making an oil comparison. You have the oil over there is a lot easier to extract because they have really nice reservoirs. In that sense, yeah, China is definitely a winner. There are really nice reserves across the world that could potentially compete, but China has so many other advantages that it’s difficult to imagine that how are we’re going to do this without industrial policy or maybe some more transparent maneuvering about what actually needs to be done, instead of just everyone saying, “Yeah, let’s open up more mines.” It’s a little bit more complex than that.

And until people realize that China’s going to continue to be the main winner and a lot of countries are going to be struggling, I wouldn’t say there are any explicit losers. Maybe geographically, if you have a larger area of land, you’re probably more likely to find some of these rare earth deposits. But the US has some, Russia has some, Australia has some. I think China has 43 percent though, as far as I know. But it’s hard to know if that’s just because they’ve been looking for it and doing it for so long or if that’s actually the distribution.

Daniel Raimi: Interesting. You touched on some of those strategic questions that the US or its allies might be considering, given this somewhat uneven distribution of resources and certainly the uneven distribution of processing facilities. Can you talk a little bit about how the US or its allies are thinking strategically about this issue of rare earths? To do another oil comparison, the United States traditionally has focused on ensuring the security of trade routes, so that supply can flow to wherever the demand is around the world. Are the United States and its allies taking similar steps or are there other emerging strategies that you’re seeing?

Jordy Lee: Yeah, absolutely. The United States is very aware of its dependence on different materials. They have a critical minerals list or critical materials list, as do most developed countries at this point. It’s an interesting history for rare earths because at one point, the United States was the largest producer of rare earths in Mountain Pass Mine in California. But they’re focused on a different rare earth at that time. I think it was for color televisions and some other things. For a while, the United States was the powerhouse and then China became a powerhouse. Then there was this interesting boat collision between China and Japan, where they got in a dispute about a boat crash. What happened was China was like, “Well, we’re not going to sell your rare earths anymore,” to Japan. Japan was really worried about that because they’re so important to so many technologies. Then the United States stepped up again and they’re like, “All right, we’ll make some rare earths.”

Then it gave everyone this wake up call where they’re like, maybe it’s not a good idea if China’s the only one that can control rare earths. Everyone started developing these critical mineral strategies. The United States has one, and I think it was the first one was in 2011, right after this boat crash. They started looking at, they’re like, “Okay, what materials are we really worried about?” Rare earths was on that list, lithium is on that list. A lot of these common materials and minerals that you’ll hear for renewable technologies, for defense applications. Yeah, so everyone made a big list and they’re like, “Okay, how do we start making these things more accessible for us? How do we have more stable supply chains?”

Every country has a little bit of a different approach. Australia is kind of funny in that they just like producing things because they’re a big mining country. So they’re just like, “We’ll just make a bunch of them and that’ll be our strategy.” Canada is also very mining focused, like maybe we should start investing in mining. The United States is a little weird in that they do have a history of large mining practices, but we’ve kind of shifted away from a lot of mining in the United States. So now it’s more about making these relationships and that’s a problem in itself because China has been doing it for a long time. If you look at their relationship with parts of Africa, the Belt and Road Initiative, China has probably the most aggressive strategy in that they’ve partnered with every resource reserve that they can find and they’re helping to develop it, and they’re really spreading out to try and control a lot of these minerals and metals.

The United States is just now realizing like, “Oh, maybe we should have thought about this a while ago.” You could say that they each have different strategies. China’s the one that everyone should be comparing themselves to because they’ve made so many inroads with different resources and reserves, and the United States is still trying to figure out if we want to start developing them locally, if we want to start making partnerships in South America and Africa for different resources. Rare earths are especially difficult because it’s difficult to mine, it’s difficult to process and there’s environmental issues.

For the United States, it seems like for rare earths especially, we’re probably going to start developing them.. But it’s a difficult process. Like I was saying, every kind of rock for rare earth is unique and every processing plant is probably unique to that specific location most of the time. It’s more complex than people think it is. The United States has started to offer millions for rare earth production and to start these processes, but it’s still a ways off, I think. Like I said, it’s not as simple as people think.

Daniel Raimi: That’s interesting. I was just looking up the boat incident that you were referring to, and I think it’s the 2010 Senkaku boat incident, which involves disputed islands between Japan and China, as well as Taiwan or Chinese Taipei. It’s a dispute that’s been going on for quite a long time. Jordy, we’ve covered a lot of ground in the last 20 minutes or so. Are there any questions that I haven’t asked about rare earths that you think are really important, that you think our audience should know about?

Jordy Lee: There’s something else besides revealing that processing is the scary part of rare earths, is that we don’t know how much we’ll need. Demand estimates are really popular when discussing renewable technologies. The World Bank’s reports on future material needs are really great and really cool to look at. When people talk about the material considerations of renewable technologies, they say we’re going to need 1,000 percent more rare earths, we’re going to need 400 percent more lithium for all the batteries that we got to make. These types of conversations, they’re really valuable in that they show how unprepared we are and how we might need to shift our focus in the coming years to be able to go away from fossil fuels to more renewable technologies, because renewables are just so much more material intensive than fossil fuels, and that’s not something people know about.

Moving one step beyond that conversation, is demand estimates are only useful as the scale. They’re not meant to tell us exactly the amount of rare earths we’re going to need by 2050. I think that’s something that people are looking at and they’re like, “We need this. Get these things going right now. We need to have these production processes at full steam so that we can make X amount of rare earths by 2050.” That’s not really the way that I think people should view it, for rare earths or for any other critical mineral. It’s more important in my understanding to have a mining industry that’s healthy, that understands these forthcoming challenges, for policy to understand that processing is a big concern, that this can be very expensive, that this can be very labor intensive.

It’s going to take a lot of different chemicals, it’s going to have radioactive waste. It’s going to be this huge issue, instead of just saying, “Let’s throw money at it, let’s make this happen right now,” it’s much more, I think, comprehensive to have strong industrial policy transparency on what we need. Then having you an adapted mining industry, not a mining industry that’s going to make X amount of rare earths by 2050, but a mining industry that can make whatever amount of rare earths we need by 2050, or whatever amount we feel like is healthy to make, instead of trying to meet these quotas.

That’s something I always think about with these demand estimates is that you’ll always hear a common saying, “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” That’s important, I think, because we don’t know how many of these minerals and metals we’re going to need. We don’t know the scale exactly. It changes every year as technologies change. I would worry less about making X amount of rare earths or X amount of cobalt or X amount of anything and more about how do we make this conversation better and how do we make the mining industry stronger?

Daniel Raimi: Right. Yeah, that makes sense. As someone who’s thought a lot about long term energy projections, I feel your pain on the tendency for people to look at projections and say, “Look, that’s the future. We know where we’re going.” And reality is projections are useful, but they don’t necessarily tell you everything you need to know.

Jordy Lee: Yeah. They make nice charts and graphs.

Daniel Raimi: They do. It’s fun to make charts with the projections, for sure.

Jordy Lee: Yeah.

Daniel Raimi: Jordy Lee, again from Colorado School of Mines, the Payne Institute, let’s close it out with our last question that we ask everyone, which is something you’ve read or watched or heard recently that you’d recommend to our listeners.

I’ll start with just a quick shout out to this really cool webcast that is a semi-regular webcast from Columbia University. It’s the Earth Institute at Columbia university. The webcast is called Sustain What? and it’s hosted by Andrew Revkin, former reporter from the New York Times. It covers all sorts of fascinating issues related to sustainability. Recently, they’ve been focused on the coronavirus, but there are all sorts of great episodes about things like wildfire and digital experiences and science in the news and all sorts of great stuff. They also have a fun music and story time that they do on the weekends that I’ll be participating in fairly soon. I’d really encourage people to check that out. It’s the Sustain What? podcast from the Earth Institute at Columbia. But how about you, Jordy? What’s on the top of your literal or metaphorical reading stack?

Jordy Lee: I’m going to have to check out Columbia then. We’re big fans of theirs, even though they’re our rivals, but that’s fine. For me, I’ve been reading a lot about fuel cells. I don’t have a specific book or a recommendation, but at School of Mines, we have a couple of professors that are leading a lot of research with fuel cells with the Coors family, funny enough. I’ve just been blown away by what I’ve been reading about in academic papers, just the way that fuel cell technology has progressed. A lot of people love to talk about the big three with renewable power, being wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, but fuel cells are just such an amazing technology to progress so much from our advancement in scientific understanding.

They’re very dependent on material processes that make these new super materials that are perfect for the way that fuel cells work. Just finding out how much they’ve progressed and how much they can progress and how they can be integrated with all these other renewable technologies, how they can make hybrid systems with natural gas, that you can run them backwards to make a fuel, which is so incredibly useful for renewable technologies, right? Everyone talks about solar panels and wind turbines, they’re like, “Well, what if the sun isn’t shining? Or what if it’s not a windy day?” That’s a problem because most people use electricity at night and we have the most power generation during the day from solar panels.

What you do is you essentially hook them up to a fuel cell and you run it backwards and it runs fine backwards and it creates this fuel. Then you run it forward again and use the fuel as energy. For me, I’m sure fuel cell experts and lovers out there are screaming that, yeah, this has been the case the whole time. But as someone who’s mostly focused on the other renewables, it’s really fascinating for me to read about that.

Daniel Raimi: Yeah. Great. We should do an episode on fuel cells. Yeah, we haven’t covered that on the podcast. That’s a great suggestion. Well, once again, Jordy Lee from Colorado School of Mines, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio.

Jordy Lee: Thanks for having me.

Daniel Raimi: You’ve been listening to Resources Radio. Learn how to support Resources for the Future at rff.org/support. If you have a minute, we’d really appreciate you leaving us a rating or comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the podcast guests, and may differ from those of RFF experts, its officers or its directors. RFF does not take positions on specific legislative proposals. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason, with music by me, Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.

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