Coming Full Circle

Celebrating 25 years, the Hawaii-based company that has built biodiesel plants across the U.S. and Japan has gone back to its roots, focusing on sustainability and local energy independence for the archipelago.
By Ron Kotrba | January 08, 2020

Few companies and individuals have had the impact on this industry as Pacific Biodiesel and the Kings. With its celebrity backing, Pacific Biodiesel—the nation’s longest-operating biodiesel company—made biodiesel sexy. Founders Bob and Kelly King helped bring this then-obscure fuel out of the shadows of its infancy and into the spotlight of mainstream commercialization. Today, the Kings are celebrating 25 years since they founded Pacific Biodiesel in 1995.

Like many other biodiesel companies, Pacific Biodiesel has had to adapt to changing market conditions and waning federal policy support in order to survive. Once a process technology-focused company that built 13 plants in Hawaii, Japan, Alaska and on the U.S. mainland, Pacific Biodiesel disbanded its construction division and went back to its roots, focusing on local sustainability and community-based recycling, agriculture and biodiesel production in Hawaii. One hundred percent of its operations and employees are now concentrated in Hawaii. While the Pacific Biodiesel of today remains true to its original sustainability-driven mission, the company has diversified tremendously to ride the waves and forge new paths and markets for its products—and its future.

The Early Years
Headquartered on Maui in Kahului, Hawaii, Pacific Biodiesel was formed when Bob King, then owner of King Diesel—a company that maintained the generators at the Central Maui Landfill—proposed tackling the environmental and health concerns of used cooking oil being dumped into the landfill by converting the restaurant waste into biodiesel to fuel the generators. Bob was a diesel mechanic by training.

“I remember from college during the ’70s, engine companies would tell people if you’re a few miles from home and you have no fuel, you can go into the grocery store and buy a 5-gallon jug of Wesson oil to make it home,” he says. “Old timers here said, ‘We’ve got all this oil here, we should do that.’” Bob says with all the media coverage biodiesel fuel was receiving in its early days, it seemed to him like biodiesel was everywhere. “I assumed everyone was doing it,” he says. He connected with Daryl Reece of the University of Idaho and, with Reece’s help, built Pacific Biodiesel’s first plant, a 250,000-gallon production facility on Maui. Little did Bob know he was helping to pioneer an industry.

Kelly recalls establishment of the company’s first biodiesel pump—what turned out to be the nation’s first. “Our generator business, King Diesel, was in the corner of a Cummins dealership,” she says. “We set up a desk and there was a big bay, and people would come in and we would work on their generators. We put the biodiesel pump there. It was not convenient, as customers would have to back in to get fuel. We had less than two dozen customers for a while. Many of them were the hippies of the island. They wore holy T-shirts and slippers. They recognized what we were doing. Our biodiesel cost 50 cents more than diesel fuel at the time. These people were paying for the fuel and telling us to keep the change. They didn’t look like could afford to do that, but they were committed to what we were doing. They were not wealthy but were committed environmentalists who dug deep into their pockets to do the right thing.”

Interestingly, the internet as we know it and biodiesel were emerging simultaneously. “When we first got into biodiesel, Bob was on the internet in the mid-’90s,” Kelly says. “He was so fascinated that he could communicate with people on the other side of the world—there were no images or sound at that time—but he linked with Daryl at the University of Idaho when researching what to do with all the used cooking oil at the landfill. And Bob is very handy, he knows about electrical wiring and pumps and so forth. He built our first plant on Maui by himself with Daryl. Bob did thorough research and sized the plant correctly for Maui.” A testament to how early Pacific Biodiesel got into the biodiesel game is its website URL:

“When Bob and I started the company, we agreed it would take a lot of commitment, blood, sweat and tears, but we also agreed we had to have fun,” Kelly says. “We couldn’t make a commitment like this and have it become drudgery every day.” She says, “if it all crashed tomorrow,” the most precious takeaway from the entire 25-year experience would be the people they met along the way. “Rock stars, celebrities, employees and locals,” she says. “Max Goldberger, a scientist in Hawaii, was the inspiration for us building the Big Island Biodiesel plant. Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson and local customers, users of the fuel who keep us inspired, maintained and determined to carry on.”

Kelly says the first time she heard that she inspired people produced a profound effect on her. “People would send us flowers to thank us for what we were doing,” she says. “But it was still like pushing a boulder up the hill. Many didn’t know what biodiesel is and didn’t trust it. And through the tough times, Bob wanted to sell the company three different times and just focus on our generator business.”

During one of those tough spells, when the company was facing some legal issues, an environmental attorney showed up. “I told him, ‘Thank you, but we don’t have money to retain an attorney,’” Kelly says. “He said, ‘Woody Harrelson sent me here to help you.’ We never did utilize his services but having the offer on the table was inspiring. We didn’t know Woody. He would come to the pumping station when we weren’t there.”

Bob agrees with Kelly about the people they’ve met, saying, “It’s really been the piece I treasure. The celebrities—how we ever got to meet Willie, Woody, Jack Johnson, all of them, and their wives have been dynamic pieces to why they are there. Also, just a whole array of people from generals to environmentalists to average people, not really celebrities but passionate, dedicated people. It has been a pleasure to meet them. I think what’s exciting is when we come across people who are struggling in their own area to change the world and save the planet, and we come in and give them hope that there’s another way to do this. When I see that hope light up in their eyes, it’s really special. We’re making a difference. It’s real—not an exchange or a credit—but we’re making real fuel that’s making a real difference.”

After the Maui plant was built, Bob says he went to Austria to meet Martin Mittelbach, a chemistry professor at the University of Graz and one of the early pioneers of biodiesel in Europe. “He took me to the very first used cooking oil biodiesel plant in the world,” Bob says. “Interestingly, it looked a lot like my plant.”

Bob says his big dream was maybe to build another plant in Hawaii. “We’d be the biodiesel company on Hawaii—big-picture stuff, you know,” he says. “Then not long afterwards we got a call from a representative of the American Soybean Association in Japan. He was talking to Soichiro ‘Sol’ Yoshida, a businessman in Japan, who wanted us to build a biodiesel plant for his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise over there in Nagano. I thought, I’ve only built one plant, but I guess I can build another—maybe. Then he said, ‘Can you have it running in nine months?’ I thought, okay, I guess. We put stuff together, shipped it to Japan and went over there to put it together. It was me, my dad, Daryl, his son and another guy. It made me think, if we’re in Japan and no one is doing biodiesel there, I guess there’s a lot of places we could do this.”

Yoshida wanted the plant built before the 1998 Winter Olympics that were also being held in Nagano, Japan. Kelly says Yoshida was on the Olympics committee and intended to fuel Olympic vehicles on biodiesel blends. The plant was scaled the same size as Pacific Biodiesel’s Maui production facility. Afterwards, Bob says the company didn’t build another plant until 2000, when Pacific Biodiesel erected its Oahu facility.

“Then we began getting more and more requests from others, so we branched out,” Kelly says. “We had no intention to be a technology provider until people started asking.” Bob says Pacific Biodiesel built 10 plants across the U.S. mainland and Alaska. “We were cranking them out for several years,” he says. Kelly adds, “Every iteration had improvements. We never got to the point where we said, ‘This is the plant we will build.’ Standards changed. They became more stringent, so we had to address that as well.” 

Then the next bust came, Bob says. “There was not a plant to be built anywhere,” he says. “At that time, I began thinking used cooking oil will get expensive, so I started looking at even more degraded feedstock such as trap grease, brown grease and tallow. At the same time, with my background in diesel mechanics, in 2007 when new clean diesels started coming out, the technology was moving rapidly and our fuel had to keep pace, even if the specification didn’t, so we had to upgrade our fuel. Lower-grade feedstock and higher-quality fuel. We spent a lot of time on the process—on preprocessing and distillation—designing the plant that we built in Hilo. It’s a very technically challenging plant. We can’t just be cranking one like this out for every stock broker who wanted one.” The plant, Big Island Biodiesel as it was originally called, was built in 2012.

Then market became soft, Bob says, and the company had to make some tough decisions. “We had to decide where we were going with the company, and what would be the future for us,” Bob says. “Did we want to go big and become a public company, or stay with a small footprint where we live? We talked with key partners and decided to pull back. We built and decided to keep this distillation plant.

This is where we want to go, where we have to go, and no less than that. We said we’ll see what happens from there. So, we disbanded our construction division and opened our technology up to whomever. We haven’t guarded it to help get people to make some effort to move in the right direction. It was time for us to focus on Hawaii, so we sold our interest in the Oregon plant (to SeQuential) and we closed the Texas plant (the BioWillie Diesel plant at Carl’s Corner), for which we had big hopes. But we realized, as much Willie can do, we’re sitting in Texas and the forces against us were large. Now 100 percent of our assets and employees are in Hawaii, and this allowed us to get through the tough years. We thought we’ll continue on and see what happens next.”

New Leadership
Bob and Kelly’s daughter Jenna Long says she must have been about nine years old when Pacific Biodiesel started. “I was hanging around the first tanks at the landfill and spent a lot of time hanging around in our lab container,” Long says. “The company definitely started as a family operation. We spent lots of time putting together sample vials and talking about the company with others. It’s grown from then to today, but the family aspect stayed. We were all very involved in the company as it was evolving.”

Bob says Jenna was “always hanging around the company, listening to Kelly and me talk around the kitchen table and in the field,” he says. “She grew up in the industry. This was our thing, and we encouraged her to do what she wanted. She went off and tried this and that, but she always came back to liking the mission and what we were doing. She spent a few years working among the rank and file of the company here and there. And then a few years ago, we were looking for a director of operations to manage all our operations in the company. All the managers said the same thing: There’s only one person with the depth of knowledge of all aspects of the company—trucking, marketing, sales, operations—and that was Jenna. It wasn’t my preference, mainly because family can be a problem in business, but there was one person deserving of this, and she is family.”

Long says one of her fondest memories of the boon times of the biodiesel industry was in 2007 during the Farm Aid concert in New York City. “This was when biodiesel was really expanding,” she says. “Lots of celebrities were involved, and there was a general sense of celebration of the industry, producers and farmers. It had a real celebratory vibe—that excitement of, this will be the future. Those years were exciting.”

Another high for Long was when the Big Island Biodiesel plant became a reality. “Reaching those months and days when we had really good numbers, things were moving and flowing and it was really exciting for me and the whole team over here,” she says. “Seeing the quality of fuel we are making now, that is really exciting for me personally.”

With highs come lows, and there have been a fair share of those for Pacific Biodiesel as well. “During crunch times when the tax credit was dissipating, we had to make a bunch of layoffs and go through downsizing, and that was tough on the company, the personnel and the team,” she says. “We are really proud of the team and how the rest were able to push through and keep moving forward. We would expand again, and then contract, and expand again. Keeping the team moving forward even through the contracting years is important, so we can be ready for the years when we expand. Our expansions have always been bigger than our contractions, so we’ve always had this general expanding trend over the past two decades.”

Under the Clean Energy Initiative, Hawaii has a goal to be petroleum-free by 2045. “I think it’s easier to want to be sustainable when you live on an island and see what comes onto and goes off the island,” Bob says. “For our hardworking communities to support businesses doing good things, if the money goes to the mainland, then that’s only half the picture. To get the whole picture, you need to put money into your communities through your employees and investors, and then ask the community to help when the times are down. I have to say, they have done that here. In tough times, the state, utilities and people have tried to help us, not by helping a mainland company, but by helping a local company who are their neighbors, family and friends. That to us is an important part of the future. It’s a joint effort. I’m not sure who said it, but all sustainability is local. I think it’s always been something I thought of—it’s a different level of business. Are we money- or mission-driven? If we are mission-driven, then why would we go into another community and make money to bring back to ours? When the ownership and feedstock and end-products stay in the same community, then everyone heeds the benefits of the effort.”

Even though Bob says Pacific Biodiesel’s mission-driven focus to be sustainable and local is a joint effort between him and Kelly, Kelly credits Bob with the passion and desire to always strive toward greater sustainability. “This came from Bob,” she says. “My role in the company, in the early days, was marketing—how do we get the fuel out there and sell our plants and technologies. We would get calls from people asking us whether we can build them a 15 MMgy plant. I thought this was great, but Bob would say we’re not doing it if it’s not sustainable. So, I credit him for our focus on sustainability and keeping that commitment.”

Focus on Operations
Today Pacific Biodiesel is more focused on its operations than on technology developments. “Although we are still innovating and developing new projects locally and technologies for our Hilo plant on the Big Island and in our Oahu feedstock operations, we’re more focused, or refocused, on moving the needle in our state rather than nationwide,” Bob says. “We have the same values and mission we always had, but we’re just carrying it out in a different way. We’re focusing on making as much fuel locally—the right type of fuel out of the right type of material and doing what we can here to move the needle, to push Hawaii toward being more petroleum-free.”

Pacific Biodiesel has recently made significant upgrades to its recycling operations on Oahu and its 5.5 MMgy biodiesel production facility on Hawaii Island. On Oahu, the company has installed a more efficient separation system using an approach to reclaim trap grease. “These are the most difficult oils to reclaim,” Long says. Components of the new system include a decanter and centrifuge system, a diffused air filtration unit with a cooling tower, and a generator run on B100 from its plant on Hawaii Island. “To separate out the solids, water and oil we first use a decanter and then a centrifuge,” Long says. “We designed the system with several off-the-shelf pieces. Not many others are doing it this way. It’s still somewhat new to us, so we’re still dialing it in, but it’s exciting what we can reclaim locally—another waste we were previously unable to use. It’s good for the community, the land and for biodiesel.”

At the biodiesel plant, Pacific Biodiesel recently improved its pretreatment equipment by installing a new set of filter press plates that can preprocess cooking oil coming in. While the goal is to use as much raw material from local sources, Pacific Biodiesel still has to ship rendered oils in from the mainland. “We’re seeing a lot of contaminants that we have to pull out before we process them through the plant,” Long says. “The main contaminant is polyethylene. We’re finding it more and more in rendered tallow and animal fats, either on the carcasses from ear tags, or from recycling food waste—trays and melted plastics. It’s a big topic in the rendering industry. We started seeing it in our feedstock a few years ago. In biodiesel, it reforms into plastic and is very problematic. To keep our production levels up, we had to address this in the plant to do more on the frontend to pretreat the waste oils. Using diatomaceous earth and filter press plates, it has been a good way for us to this pull material out.” Bob says even though many in the rendering industry say there is nothing they can do to remove this plastic, “which is a huge problem now,” he adds, he says with a special type of pressure leaf filter it can be done.

The company has also made significant strides in making the Hawaii biodiesel production facility energy independent. Distillation bottoms are used as boiler fuel for process heat and the company has installed power generators on-site that run on its own biodiesel for electricity. “We always planned when we designed this facility to use distillation bottoms as boiler fuel, but it took a couple of years to adjust to this,” Bob says. “It’s heavier methyl esters, and it solidifies quickly, so we have to heat the tanks up well and keep it warm as it flows into the boiler. The whole facility is designed to use every bit of byproduct we can. Part of the reason is because it lowers our operational costs, but the other part is there are limited places to dispose of this material.”

With Bob’s generator knowledge and history, installing generators on-site to provide electricity for the plant may have seemed like a no-brainer, but this was a rather recent decision that was made just a few years ago. “We were paying more than 40 cents a kilowatt for electricity,” Bob says. “It was quite costly to run all our pumps and motors, so it was a financial decision to make our own electricity. And running them on biodiesel makes a lot of sense for us, and the same is true for our customers. Once we put ours in, other companies that also have high electricity costs run diesel generators and our biodiesel in them.” In 2016, the facility was the first in the world to be certified by the Sustainable Biodiesel Alliance.

In early 2017, Pacific Biodiesel hosted a Hawaiian blessing to mark the beginning of the company’s scaled-up farming demonstration to grow biofuel crops including sunflowers in Maui’s central valley.

The 115-acre project was plotted on land previously used for sugarcane production and made history by being the largest biofuel crop project in the state of Hawaii, and the only biofuel farming operation in the state running on 100 percent renewable fuel. The agriculture project is a showcase of the company’s sustainable, community-based model of agriculture and renewable energy. Later that year Pacific Biodiesel harvested its first crop.

“You have to be flexible to stay alive,” Kelly says. “I started looking for other opportunities for expansion through agriculture. People said we were crazy because land in Hawaii is too expensive and fuel is too cheap. So, we diversified our uses of the crops, not just for biodiesel but other high-value products. In 2017, when the first blooms of sunflowers came, we had been working on it for so long, and by then we recognized that we had to do this. Energy has to be part of agriculture if it is to be sustainable.”

Long says Pacific Biodiesel’s expansion locally depends on whether it can grow more crops in Hawaii. “If we have more feedstock, then we can produce more fuel,” she says. “It’s one of the driving pieces, so that’s why we’re getting more into agriculture in Hawaii. Because without local crops, we’re shipping in more waste from outside the state, which we can do, but it doesn’t quite meet our end goal to make here, grow here and sell here. I envision us continuing with this mission. I think there’s going to be greater demand for fuel in the future, and since our state doesn’t have oil resources—we’re not an oil-producing state—and since there’s only so much we can do with wind and solar, there will be a continued need for liquid fuel. And biodiesel is the best liquid fuel for Hawaii when made from local waste and crop materials. We will continue to try to do more, as long as we can get support from the state and federal government.”

Hawaii has a lot of land, Bob says. “Surprisingly, much of it is fallow,” he adds. “We’re trying to push an integrated ag system here where we can grow oil and food. It comes down to economics. Farmers want to make a living, and getting the economics correct is important. For me, personally, I find that it gets harder every year to keep up and stay positive. It’s tiring fighting the same battle over and over, seeing shortsighted outlooks just basically trash a program for a short-term gain and expect us to come back when we’re needed. It’s disappointing and discouraging. Yet I know it’s an important part of the future. We’ll keep doing the best we can to put a model up there of how things could be. It’ll depend on others to either get onboard or we’ll have shown something that people don’t want to do. It’s not a technical issue. We have the ability to solve many problems of the world, environmentally. It’s just a question of, is there a desire to do so? We’ll see.”

As part of its flexibility and need to diversify, in 2018 a wholly owned subsidiary of Pacific Biodiesel, Maiden Hawaii Naturals LLC, introduced Kuleana Sunscreen, a natural, reef-safe product. Made from plant-based oils, minerals and other natural ingredients—including the company’s locally made macadamia and sunflower oils—the sunscreen contains no ecologically harmful chemicals such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which were banned by Hawaii’s new sunscreen law. In addition, Kuleana Sunscreen supports Hawaii-based environmental organizations through its membership in the global organization, 1% for the Planet.

On Earth Day 2019, the Kings announced the development of Maui’s first state-licensed industrial hemp farm operating under the Kings’ personal entity, Imua Energy LLC. The commercial farming operation is initially producing full-spectrum industrial hemp extract, including CBD. The hemp extract is being manufactured by Imua Energy and distributed by Maiden Hawaii Naturals. Maiden Hawaii will also incorporate Imua Energy’s premium hemp extract as a featured ingredient in its natural skincare brand, Kuleana by Maiden Hawaii Naturals.

The Hawaii Department of Agriculture granted the license to Imua Energy for the purposes of research on the growth, cultivation and marketing of industrial hemp. The 10-acre site located within its 115-acre Biofuel Crop Farm in central Maui is said to be the first industrial hemp farm in the U.S. powered 100 percent by biodiesel. The sustainable farming operation is free of pesticides, herbicides and GMO crops.

Keeping It Local
In early 2019, after more than a year with the federal biodiesel tax credit being expired, Pacific Biodiesel was mulling over the idea of shipping its biodiesel to California to take advantage of the LCFS credits in order to stay afloat. This was not a decision the company would make lightly, as it was directly contrary to its mission to produce and sell fuel locally. In April, Long told Biodiesel Magazine, “There’s no mandate for biodiesel here in Hawaii. Our state on-road tax exemption, which has been a nice [16-cent] discount, has been helpful but it is being challenged this year. Legislators put forth a bill to take it away. It went through the House and Senate and finally died off, but it is odd to see challenges to the [little] support we are currently getting. And we don’t see anything new coming to replace it if it is [rescinded]. And on the county level, they’re trying to take away a road tax discount. What we’re trying to point out to others is, if the state is not supportive, then we will look to other states that are.”

Thankfully, later in the year, Pacific Current stepped up to the plate and signed a contract with Pacific Biodiesel to supply Pacific Current’s 60 MW combined cycle power generation facility, Hamakua Energy, with biodiesel to fuel the power plant. Pacific Current acquired the Hamakua Energy facility in 2017 and sells power to Hawaii Electric Light Co. under an existing power purchase agreement. The plant is capable of providing 22 percent of Hawaii Island’s generating capacity.

“The plant was operating as a peaking facility,” Scott Valentino, president of Pacific Current, told Biodiesel Magazine in late October. A peaking facility provides power during times of peak demand.

Subsequent to Pacific Current’s acquisition of the Hamakua Energy plant, a violent eruption of the Kilauea volcano on Hawaii Island in 2018 took the Puna Geothermal Ventures plant, which was providing 40 MW of baseload power, offline.

“Hamakua Energy stepped into that role,” said Valentino, explaining that Pacific Current’s recently acquired peaking facility is now operating at more than 75 percent capacity to provide baseload power for the Big Island, filling the void left by the offline geothermal plant.

Before the contract with Pacific Biodiesel, the Hamakua Energy plant had been generating its power from either diesel fuel or naphtha, Valentino said. At 75 percent operating capacity, the plant can consume upward of 2.5 million gallons a month. “It’s pretty substantial,” he said. If the geothermal plant becomes operable again, however, this could change. “There is general support to get the geothermal plant back online,” Valentino said. Depending on the status of the Puna geothermal facility, Hamakua Energy may consume between 10 and more than 25 MMgy of fuel per year.

The first biodiesel delivery to Hamakua Energy took place Nov. 4. “Our mission is not to ship fuel all over,” King says. “It was looking like we might have to, but this contract with Pacific Current solidifies that our fuel will stay in Hawaii. This contract is very important, most especially because of the federal situation. Pacific Current understands where we’re at, where the markets are at, and they’ve stepped up and helped us through these times right now when we’re not getting much help from the federal government. They’ve made a commitment to stay with us through the ups and downs. Economically, it’s good, and I have to say, for morale it’s good knowing that our local team has our back.” Pacific Biodiesel also continues to provide biodiesel to the 50 MW Schofield Generating Station on Oahu.

Today Kelly has taken on less of a role with the company as she is a member of the Maui County Council and chair of the council’s new Climate Action and Resilience Committee. “I never really had a desire to get into politics,” she says. “I was at an energy conference in 2016 and someone got on their knees and begged me to run for office. The person running at the time was heavily into development of shopping malls, and the community didn’t want that. They thought that was a dead end for the community. So, I look at my running for office as doing my jury duty. I never had the desire for power or authority. But with my administrative experience running a business and my understanding of the environmental sector, I felt it was important. When we started Pacific Biodiesel, it was about recycling. Today it’s about sustainability and climate change, which are huge issues for the county. And I have a lot of experience in that sector.” 

Long says her parents’ original model based on using waste has been carried on by the innovative projects in which Pacific Biodiesel has endeavored. “Using more and different kinds of waste—waste macadamia nuts, waste papaya, growing algae—consciously or subconsciously we seek out waste to reuse and make useful,” she says.

Summing up the company’s 25 years, Bob says it’s been a series of ups and downs. “It’s been a really interesting journey,” he says. “I don’t think we can predict where the next piece of the puzzle will go for us, or for the industry. It’s been so dynamic, so many things changing in our business model, adapting to find a path going forward. It’s an ongoing issue.” 

Long agrees, saying it’s been a roller coaster ride of highs and lows. “But, in general, we’ve continued to grow over the past decades,” she says. “And we’re constantly moving to newer technologies and trying to do more for the community.”

Kelly says to get into this business, one has to be really committed to the reasons they are doing it. “If you’re in it to make money, then don’t do it,” she says. “It’s still an uncertain industry. It shouldn’t be. That’s the irony. It’s the most reliable renewable energy. It’s well-tested, it provides firm power, local jobs and benefits to the economy. It can be put right into the existing system. It should be the best choice anyone can make. But prepare for the risks. Every penny is at risk. There have been times when we didn’t know if we’d get through the next week. But we weren’t afraid to fail, and to start over again.”

Bob says, “I think the fact that, while we’re making this fuel the world continues to expand its energy consumption faster than renewables are coming on line. We’re burning more fossil fuel than we ever were, which is disappointing and puts me in kind of a funk. It makes me ask, ‘Did we really do anything?’ It’s been a struggle of successes and setbacks. But we have to move the needle. When I get to feeling like this, I talk to more people and get pumped back up—and keep going.”

Author: Ron Kotrba
Editor, Biodiesel Magazine
[email protected]

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