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What is electricity
Sunlight on power wiresImage shows 3-phase distribution lines traveling between substation and end user.
Top wire is static wire/ system neutral for protection against lightning, to bond all neutrals and grounds together into single neutral-ground array, protect and assist circuit breakers during overload, and stabilize grid against surge.
Other 3 wires carry 3-phase high voltage.
Wires are 1" diameter bare aluminum alloy
Air space below wires is the insulation
See inside main breaker box
basic house wiring
Troubleshoot household electric
What is 3-phase
Name parts of electric power pole
|It is NOT known exactly
what electricity is.
Electricity is a force that moves electrons.
That is a description what happens. But it does not say what electricity is.
Like saying an engine moves a car. But doesn't explain what an engine is. It just explains what it does.
There are known rules or formulas such as volts x amps = watts.
So electricity has predictable characteristics.
Producing and controlling electricity can be learned despite not knowing exactly what electricity is.
Figure volts amps watts
All matter is made up of atoms that have negatively charged electrons in orbit around positively charged protons.
Electrons are lighter weight than protons, so electrons tend to move more rapidly than protons.
Various conditions of increased energy can cause electrons to get excited and jump into wider orbits around the proton where they sometimes come free.
Conductive materials such as copper or silver give up electrons more easily than non-conductive materials such as rubber.
All matter is conductive when enough power is applied, which is why high voltage electricity must be handled carefully.
When a copper wire is energized by heat, the electrons in the copper atom become loosely bonded to the proton.
When electric power is applied to copper wire, the electrons start jumping from one atom to the next where they dislodge more electrons, and the flow of electrons start moving down the wire. Again, this explains what happens.
Heat causes electrons to move to a more energized state, making them easier to dislodged from orbit.
So is electricity caused by heat?
Not exactly, because low temperatures also assist the flow of electrons by lowering resistance of conductive materials.
Exception is frozen soil which has high resistance, requiring more ground rods. Frozen rocks are less conductive than warm damp clay. Bur solar panels harvest more electrons when panels are cold instead of hot. Odd isn't it, but temperature plays a role as well as type of material.
Resistance can be thought of as friction that stops you from pushing a disabled car uphill.
The steeper the hill, the harder it is to push the car.
Resistance is the amount of effort it takes to move electricity across a conductor.
With some materials, cold temperatures can be thought of as pushing a car downhill. It's easier to push the car because there is less resistance.
Very hot conditions may energize electrons into loosely bonded orbits, but it takes more work to move the electrons across a conductor like copper wire, just like pushing a car uphill takes more work.
Pushing a car helps explain resistance, but other factors affect resistance. For example if the car has a flat tire, no grease on wheel bearings etc. Same with electrical resistance: there are many factors affecting resistance, including type and size of conductor, plus temperature.
Hot temperatures increase resistance, so more electric energy is required to push electrons across a wire.
As a general rule, cold temperatures reduce resistance on a wire, so less energy is required to push electrons. Example of cold temperature resistance is the study of super conductivity and finding conditions and materials that offer zero resistance so electricity can be transmitted without loss caused by heat.
Heat loss makes electricty more expensive because it consumes electric power to send power. A super conductive condition would let power plant transmit electricity to your house without consuming any energy ... like pushing a car uphill with barely a touch.
Conclusion: Temperature and resistance help explain parameters of electricity, but don't tell us what electricity is.
Function of quantum mechanics
Potential of electrons or the attraction-of-unequal-charges, is a function of quantum mechanics.
Electricity is somewhere in the realm of quantum mechanics, and the attraction of + to - charges, or the attraction of unequal charges.
It's not just attraction of + and - charges. Unequal charges means two negative charges can equalize too. When one area of storm cloud is more negatively charged than another, lightning can occur that equalizes the two. So is a charge relative to a specific value? Like the average charge of earth? Except the charge of earth varies too, so unequal means relative to nearby charges.
If two unequal charges are too far apart, they will not equalize. All is stable and nothing happens until the unequal particles find a pathway to equalize.
The attraction of unequal charges happens at many different scales, from individual electron to massive number of electrons. What we humans observe as electricity is the movement of massive numbers of particles.
So does electricity only exist when we observe its affect? Or is that simply a name we apply to the phenomenon?
What about when one electron jumps to another orbit and then comes back? What about electrons moving between atoms? What is the scale? Every atom is involved, but when does it become electricity?
Don't we have to know what a + or - charge is before we can find out what electricity is?
In any case, it appears that electricity is somehow related to the movement of electrons caused by unequal charges, and that nothing happens until there is a pathway that lets electrons flow.
We can conclude that unequal charges are a potential for electricity until a pathway exists and electrons move, but we still don't know what electricity is.
Voltage is the potential difference between both ends of wire, or between the end of wire and earth.
So 120 volts is only a potential across 2 poles.
A wire might be sitting there doing nothing until you grab it while leaning into grounded metal.
Results vary from severe burns, death, and long-term heart and nerve problems as electrons race through body to equalize with average charge of nearby earth or another conductor.
There is endless potential from the power plant generator, and voltage will keep burning through the body until contact is broken with the ground, or breaker or fuse is tripped off.
More people are killed by 120 volt that all other voltages. Do not touch a person being electrocuted, knock em loose with a non-conductive 2x4. Do not apply water to electrical burn. Get help immediately.
People making error of stealing transformer oil or copper from substation are burned into carbon. Long past suffering except folks who witnessed events.
I don't mean to sound indifferent, more than advising caution. I was working on live 120 volt in customer's attic. Sweated shirt and leaning into metal AC duct, the next thing I remember was crawling toward the attic stairway. I was unhurt because the contact was brief, but SWORE never to work on live power again. Good idea.
Always stand on dry insulated surface such as boards when working with electricity.
Turn off breaker, but do not assume power is off. Test with non-contact voltage tester.
When testing live power, tape tester leads to wood sticks to keep hands away from power. Paint sticks and masking tape work fine.
Do not lean over and put head into live circuit. Step back and then pick up tools.
Stay off aluminum ladder. Use approved fiberglass ladder, or safest plan: hire licensed electrician and go out and buy a newspaper.
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Voltage is a potential. For example, commercial high-leg delta installation, when testing across any 2 of 4 wires in circuit: the test reveals 120 volt potential high-leg to phaseA, and 208 volt potential high-leg to neutral, and 240 volt phaseA to Neutral, and 240 volt phaseA to phaseB. The electrician has 4 wires available to choose from, and can achieve 3 different voltages by selecting different combinations.
Residential electricity shows same result: Test shows 120 volt potential Hot wire to Neutral, and 240 volt Hot wire to Hot wire. Electrician can achieve 2 different voltages.
The potential voltage is only realized if both conductors are connected. In other words, after we connect the conductors, a pathway is open for the charged particles.
120 volts only becomes 120 volt when both conductors meet and the potential difference is discharged.
In the case of lightning, the potential exists everywhere, is continually moving and changing, and the discharge of lightning is momentary until resistance of air exceeds potential. If the potential charge is not released by lightning, it is dissapated more slowly as atmospheric conditions change. The mathematics for worldwide conditions would be immense, and perhaps incalculable except as theory.
In the case of generated AC electricity traveling down a wire, the potential only exists on the conductor as long as generator is running, and the discharge is continual and uniform until a switch is turned off. The mathematics for AC electricity is more knowable since each component of the grid is engineered to meet the practical mathematics of volts x amps = watts.
This still doesn't explain what electricity is. It only describes the narrow way we control electrons by utilizing the physics of loose electrons following a pathway.
What is 3-phase
How to wire 3-phase
See inside household breaker box
Electrons following a pathway/ resistance
What is a pathway? I sorta improvized, but I use the word pathway to describe any conductive surface, channel or material that allows the flow of electrons to equalize unequal charge.
Since any material can be a conductor if the voltage is high enough and conditions are correct, then 'pathway' refers to a broad assortment of everything at any time, with some more likely than others. In other words, there is a probability of a 'bolt from the blue,' when lightning strikes the ground but there are no clouds in sky. The natural-occurring unequal charge exceeded the resistance of air.
The only thing stopping unequal charges from equalizing is the resistance of the surface, channel or material surrounding it.
For example, you can connect 9 volt battery to one end of a steel bridge, and steel is very conductive with low resistance, but steel offers measurable resistance at earth-temperatures, because every material has resistance. The steel bridge can equalize the battery by depleting available electrons from material inside the battery. But the resistance of steel exceeds the battery's ability to send power across the bridge and light up a bulb connected to other side.
The same steel bridge hit by strong bolt of lightning will energize entire structure, requiring lighting rods and direct pathway to earth using more conductive material such as copper or aluminum. I suppose humans discovered this after applying science to observable pattern of negative outcomes.
Overall, electricity follows the pathway of least resistance ... a channel let's say, and the path may go more than one direction as seen when lightning bolts follow erratic routes and split several direction, jumping from tree to house and banging about the copper pipes and overloading electric wires.
The ground, or earth, or soil, likewise offers resistance, so ground rods must be driven to correct depth or consists of enough rods to reduce resistance so current flows easily. Damp, dense, high salt soils offer less resistance than dry, rocky soils. Frozen ground raises resistance and is not good conductor.
Suppose the steel bridge is anchored to soil that offers low resistance. Or a cement bridge contains steel rebar. Metals are conductive, just like soil, and the difference causes uneven charge. Slowly over time, electrons from the steel structure travel from the steel to the ground. This mean a small current, or slight amount of electricity moves electrons to earth causing depletion of the bridge footing. Same is true for any metal structure. To prevent the damage, anode rods are used. Anodes are made of less noble metals like aluminum and magnesium, and offer a source of electrons for the earth instead of the steel. Once the steel is bonded to the anode, the anode depletes instead of steel.
The same phenomena is seen when any two conductive metals are joined. Some more than others. For example copper pipe connected to steel pipe will cause a small current, or flow, of electrons that cause depletion of steel pipe at point of connection. This happens slowly over decades and can be prevented by using brass connection between both metals. Connecting metal to plastic pipe causes other issues such as leaking, but there is no current between the two materials since plastic is non-conductive under ordinary usage.
Another interesting consideration is bonding or grounding a tall antenna to steel water pipes. It was discovered that a flow of electrons from the antenna could deplete the water pipes but also cause a steel water heater to fail within a couple years. Amazingly fast, and unexpected deterioration of steel because the amount of current received from radio waves (energy from the elctromagnetic spectrum). Proper bonding to ground rod instead of water pipe gave a direct pathway to earth for the flow of electrons, and stopped problem.
This shows that a current of moving electrons is the basis of electricity. That the current is slowed by resistance of the pathway, and limited by magnitude of unequal charge. And it shows that electricity can take many forms. But we still don't know what electricity is.
aluminum and copper
resistance causes the attraction and resiistance
can resistance be the force that overcomes resistance
Generator magnetic field on a conductor
Solar, wind, water, battery
|Resistance stops electron from escaping orbit.
Conductors have lower resistance than non-conductive materials. Conductive materials release electron from orbit fairly easily, but conductive materials hold their electrons more tightly.
We know unequal charges are attracted.
The unequal charges indicate there are too many or two few electrons relative to nearby materials.
So what attracts them? Is it the same force that holds electrons into orbit around a neutron.
If positive neutrons are stripped of their electrons, they want to attract more electrons back to them. Their electrons were stripped away because the force was greater than their resistance to resleasing electrons.
But what about the attraction between unequal charges.
Different kinds of electricity/ lightning
In the previous section we mentioned a few kinds of electricity where electrons move slowly between different conductive materials.
Everyday examples discussed below are probably more common to us.
Lightning bolts and static discharge are a form of electricity where unequal charges are equalized.
Under conditions such as warm air rising into storm clouds, positively and negatively charged electrons group together on atoms inside the storm. The storm clouds have areas that becomes more positively or negatively charged ... resulting in a differential of charge. There is a force that wants to equalize the charge.
Air is the non-conductive insulator that stops electrons from equalizing. The non-conductive air also helps cause areas of unequal charge. Breathable air is a collection of gases that is non-conductive, except at extremely high voltage, and is used by the power company when calculating safe distance between conductors and distance away from the ground.
When the force is large enough to overcome resistance or insulation of air, the electrons discharge in a bolt of lightning (electricity) that equalizes the charge between clouds causing lighting across the clouds. The uneven charge is also present on the ground below the clouds, and when the resistance of air is less than the differential charge, there is lightning between the clouds and the earth below.
The electrons quickly flow into orbit around other atoms until the charge is reduced to an amount less than the resistance of air.
This explains one condition that causes observable electricity, but does not tell us what electricity is.
AC and DC electricity
More predictable and more useful for purpose of machinery and electronics are AC and DC electricity.
AC is alternating current where electrons alternate or change direction 50 or 60 times per second, depending if the generator rotates 50 or 60 times per second. South, Mid, North Americas, the standard is 60, or 60 cycles, or 60 Hz, while Europe to Africa to Asia is 50 cycles. The standard is being relaxed, but reliable electric waveform starts with integrity of rotation.
AC electricity generally comes from generators where a coil of wire is exposed to a magnetic field.
Very literally, the electrons move one direction down the wire at nearly the speed of light, and gradually slow down to a stop, and then accelerate back the other direction until they slow to a stop. The sine-wave oscillation of AC electricity repeats over and over, back and forth on the wire, with voltage rising and then falling to zero, and then rising again, 50-60 times per second ... with an average voltage above zero ... and happening so fast that a light bulb filament doesn't flicker.
DC is direct-current where electrons flow only one direction.
DC voltage comes from solar panels, batteries, and from AC electricity that is transformed into DC.
The flow of DC electrons is uniform, and does not rise and fall in voltage like AC, nor change direction.
Switching high voltage DC is a bigger challenge than AC because of arc extinction, or spark when the blades of a switch are disengaged. With AC, the voltage reaches zero so there is a moment when the electrons have stopped moving, making the spark fairly easy to extinguish. However, high voltage DC has a larger arc because the voltage never drops to zero. Instead the electrons in a DC circuit keep pushing, and trying to jump across the switch. The solution is to have multiple switches disengage at the same time on both negative and positive wires.
Both DC and AC can be converted into either AC or DC.
DC can be stored. AC is either used or lost, and cannot be stored unless put into heated water, or some type of storage such as converted to DC and stored in a battery etc.
Solar panels produce DC electricity but, to make is more useful, it can be converted into AC electricity using an inverter.
Likewise AC electricity can be turned into DC electricity using a transformer.
Most electronic circuits are DC electricity.
For example a computer uses DC electricity for the circuit board. The source of power for the DC circuit board is AC electricity.
So we are still explaining electricity by looking at its moving parts without saying what it is.
Read how to convert AC water heater to DC/ high voltage
Convert AC water heater to DC/ low voltage
Electricity is mathematical and predictable
Household electricity has mathematical properties that predict what will happen under certain conditions. It is also known that when conditions exceed safe margins, or safety margins missing, then electricity does predictable things such as short out and burn down a house.
Lighting bolts are measurable and slightly predictable, as are consequences from a direct encounter with lightning.
Electricity is measured in volts, amps and watts etc, reflected by the basic formula V x A = W.
The basic formula is key for converting electricity into usable forms.
For example the conversion of voltages from an AC outlet to your DC cell phone battery requires a transformer with two coils of wire. The coils of wire do not touch, nor are they connected except by a bar of metal. The two coils are merely next to each other, and energizing one coil of wire with cause the other coil of wire to become energized. Different number of winds on each coil produces different voltages. For example the 120 volt household power is run into one of the coils of wire. The other coil has more winds and is energized at lower voltage. The lower voltage travels into the cell phone where the battery is charged.
Figure volts amps watts
Electric power is standardized so that appliances, motors and electronics receive predictable voltages.
In the US, standard voltages include 12 24 36 48 120 208 240 277 440 480 600 4400 7200 69,000 500,000 etc
Let's look at the electric grid supplying power to your town. The power company generator produces large amounts of electricity that is transmitted across aluminum-alloy wires, at very high voltage, to local substations.
High voltage means the electricity can be transmitted long distance without power loss.
Transformers at the local substation reduce voltage further for subtransmission and distribution.
Each house or building receives a distribution line from the substation transformer that carries 4400 to 7200 volt.
Since it is impractical to use 4400 or 7200 volts to run appliances, the voltage is reduced at each location using a transformer.
|Why are transformers
located all along the grid?
The reason transformers are used is because of heat.
Remember how electrons leave their orbit under conditions of heating? Electricity causes heat.
Humans made several discoveries over the past centuries: Electricity can be measured by two inversely proportional properties which they called volts and amps. When volts go up, amps go down. It's similar to a workplace.
If more men (volts) are at work, the amount-of-work (amps-heat) needed from each man to reach the goal is LESS.
Fewer men (volts) at work, the amount-of-work (amps-heat) needed from each man is MORE.
Humans also discovered that 2 coils of wires placed next to each other could manipulate the volt-amp relationship at very high efficiency. They also discovered that decreasing amps (heat) meant less power loss on a wire, and that high voltage could be sent long-distance over small-size economically-priced wire on towers that could be spaced far apart from each other.
They discovered that high-voltage switchgear is very expensive and heavy, and high voltage extremely dangerous, and thus impractical for house-sized appliances.
Therefore high-volt-low-amp (500,000 volt etc) is used for transmitting electricity long distance. Less-high-volt-lower-amp (4400 volt etc) is used for local distribution. And low-volt-high-amp (120-440 volt/ 100+ amps) is for end-user appliances, lights, and machinery.
We are explaining some of the basic principles of manipulating electricity, but haven't come close to saying what it is... because we don't know.
|Questions for the
scientists and quasi-scientists trying to answer what electricity is:
The clues might be out there.
Here are some questions and let's assume that 'probably' and 'probably not' are suppositions that limit possibilities. Or if you think you know some answers based on known science, push your thinking forward and take all the questions as a whole.
Is electricity the same across the universe? Can you set up an AC generation grid on a planet that does not have a metallic core? Or an atmosphere? Would the ground rods and neutral system work? Is electricity a product of gravity? Does electric current flow across the universe like light? Is electricity a form of light? Or a product of light? Electric wires capture radio waves and transmit the interference - would the wires on another planet need to be shielded from radiation? Are radio waves only caused by electricity? Do our electronic circuits work in very high heat and cold? Are the physics governing electrify the same everywhere? Do those rules evolve? Do atoms evolve? What kind of electricity is needed for life? The conductive element nickel if necessary for living organisms as we know them, and the earth's core is nickel, the metal is abundant and our nervous systems are electrical - is there a relationship?
Ah here's an idea that somebody is 'probably' working on .... an easily-transportable metal or conductive material that can be shaped into a wire or surface, and exposed to high levels of solar radiation, on the surface of the moon for example, that will produce a one-directional flow of electrons similar to battery or solar panel ..... plus an equally conductive material than can be cooled in a shaded area on moon that will allow rapid acceleration of atoms from the hot conductor to the cold conductor? ... Reasoning that present-day electronics that function on earth must be shielded from charged particles of radiation via atmosphere, or by physical shielding in space. ... implying that electricity on earth has unique properties due to the specific environment here, and therefore conditions in space might likewise offer undiscovered properties that allow new opportunity ... particularly since we know that radiation is absorbed by materials, and will dislodge electrons, and in fact damage exposed materials because radiation carries huge energy potential.
And let's add a caveat that the conductive material harvest all wavelengths of light including the visible spectrum, thus making the electric output far more powerful than solar panels.
If household 120 volt was connected to a cell phone, the switches inside the phone would have to be robust enough to handle the arc, and the phone would not be small. In order to make the phone small enough, the voltage has to be very low so the switches can be small.
|There are a wide variety
of transformers and transformer configurations
that allow for the production of different voltages.
208 V DC can be achieved using solar panels, but more typical would be 208 V AC from the electric grid
208 V AC is one of many standard voltages available in the US and around the world
208 V is a standard voltage derived from using a specific transformer
Let's say the distribution voltage is 4400 and the end user wants 208 volt
Inside each transformer are two coils of wire the primary and secondary
The primary coil converts electrical energy into magnetic field that is converted back into electrical energy in a second coil.
The metal core of a transformer is made from silicon-steel alloy to avoid magnetic field loss.
When the primary coil is energized with 4400 volts, the secondary coil starts flowing with electricity also
When each coil has a different number of winds of wire around the metal core then the voltage can be changed
The ratio of windings on each coil is the turns ratio
There are a specific number winds for 4500 volts and specific number of winds for 208 volt
The power company connects 4500 volts to the primary coil and the secondary coil has more winds and produces the needed 208 volts
Turns ratio = number of turns on primary ÷ number turns on secondary
4500 ÷ 208 = 21.6
primary voltage = secondary voltage x turns ratio
|Start with the molecule.
If you take a drop of water, and divide into smaller and smaller parts.
Eventually you arrive at the water molecule.
If water is further broken down it becomes one separate atom of hydrogen and two separate atoms of oxygen.
The smallest molecule of water is made of one atom of hydrogen and two atoms of oxygen.
If water is broken down further than a molecule, then it is no longer water.
Water is also known as H2O.
H2 is two atom of hydrogen.
O is one atom of oxygen.
When put together, they form a molecule of water.
When broken apart they become separate atoms.
|Looking at the atom.
Hydrogen is the simplest atom with one electron, and a nucleus made up of one proton.
The electron has a negative charge.
The proton nucleus has a positive charge.
The negative electron rotates around the positive nucleus.
This can be compared with the moon orbiting around the earth, or the earth orbiting around the sun.
Oxygen is more complex than hydrogen.
The oxygen nucleus has one proton and one neutron.
Oxygen has seven electrons.
Again the nucleus had a positive charge.
The electrons have a negative charge.
|Electrons orbit at
specific distances from the nucleus.
Again, it can be compared with the Earth orbiting the sun and remaining same distance.
Each electron has a specific path or orbit that it follows around the center nucleus.
Oxygen has 7 electrons.
2 electrons on the oxygen atom share same orbit, and each is located on opposite side of the center nucleus.
Imagine if the earth had a twin planet that followed the same orbit as the earth, but was on opposite side of the sun.
5 electrons on the oxygen atom share a different orbit, and that orbit is located farther away from the center nucleus.
The 5 electrons are spaced evenly in their orbit.
Since the nucleus is positive and the electron negative, that shows atoms have electrical charge.
In that sense all matter is said to be electrical in nature.
|Apply energy to the atom.
If energy is applied to the atom then the electrons change orbit.
What would happen to earth's orbit if more energy entered our solar system?
With more energy the electrons begin orbiting farther away from the center nucleus.
The nucleus does not move because it is heavier than the electron.
If enough energy is applied then electron breaks free from its orbit.
This is called a free electron
Some materials can be energized by electricity better than other materials
Some metals have electrons that are very loosely bound to the nucleus
These electrons can become free electrons very easily
This is called conductivity
For example copper conducts electricity better than other materials because copper electrons are loosely bound to the nucleus
When power is applied to copper wire it energizes the atoms of copper
Energizing copper causes free electrons because the electrons are loosely bound to the nucleus
The same amount of energy put into rubber will not produce free electrons
So copper is a better conductor than rubber
Good conductors have low resistance to the movement of electrons
Flow of electrons is the current
Materials that release electrons at low energy level and easily allow the flow of those electrons are considered good conductors
The free electron starts moving when electric power is applied
So the free electrons start moving along the copper wire
The electrons migrate from atom to atom
Each free electron jumps a short space to the next atom where it begins to orbit
This causes one or more electrons to come free
Then those free electrons jump to the next atom
Then more electrons are displaced at the next atom
The pattern is repeated until there's a flow of electrons down the wire
At this point the entire length of wire is energized
Energy is transferred through copper wire by the movement of free electrons
Each of the replaced electron repeats the same thing, jumping from atom to atom and causing more displaced electrons
The flow of electricity is the current
Is called the transmission of electric power
The flow of electricity is controlled by using conductive and non-conductive material
And by controlling the amount of energy flowing across the conductive material
For example wood is not a conductive material
If enough power is put into the wood it will conduct electricity
Evidence of this is a lightning strike or high voltage arcing to ground through branches of a tree
Circuit breaker resourcesWe know amps are heat because a circuit breaker trips when the heat exceeds amp-rating of breaker. If breaker feels warm to touch, the circuit is drawing too many amps. Same breaker will work for 120 volt, 240 volt, 277 volt etc, so volts are not the heat component that trips a breaker. Water heater is tripping breaker
How to replace circuit breaker
How to wire gfci
Can AC breaker be used for DC breaker
How to reset circuit breaker
Not enough space for circuit breakers/ use tandem
How to install subpanel
Why you need ground wire
See inside breaker box
How to wire safety switch
How to wire whole house surge protector
Figure volts amps and watts
Figure correct wire and breaker
Types of surge protection
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