back to article Soviet-era tech could change the geothermal industry

A piece of Soviet-era physics equipment may be the key to worldwide geothermal energy. Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland. The Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland, for example, is able to produce 500 GWh of electricity annually. It has a whopping 33 boreholes MIT research engineer Paul Woskov spent 14 years …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

    I have a 3D printer that tops out at ~300C, should I be drilling holes instead?

    1. jmch Silver badge

      Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

      I believe 200C+ is already enough for viable geothermal, at least where it's close-ish to the surface and you don't need to dig so deep (up to 1km). 500C would give you more power but of course you need to dig deeper (6-8km ta least).

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

        But if you get higher temperatures you can probably start to use the existing turbines in coal plants... and since the tech allows it from most of the planet there's a good chance they can do this at existing sites...

        That's not a benefit to be overlooked... just imagine if all our dirty plants could be powered by steam from an FDH (freaking deep hole).

        1. skeptical i
          Thumb Up

          Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

          Might help with the politics of the Green New Deal, if current coal plant operators can replace their dirty black chunks with an FDH (and some other modifications that will no doubt be needed) and keep on running. Maybe Joe Manchin will even support it.

          1. John Robson Silver badge
            Boffin

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            Additional benefits include:

            - Non intermittent source

            - Rapidly variable station output

            Aside from the really obvious "most of the plant has already been built and connected to the grid"

          2. Cuddles

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            The politics of coal power revolve almost entirely around jobs, and the subsequent votes they produce. The vast majority of jobs in a coal power plant are related to handling coal, with of course even more once you factor in mining, transport, and so on. Replacing coal with geothermal would be no better in political terms than replacing it with anything else.

        2. Muscleguy
          Joke

          Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

          Forget FDH what about sharks with frigging hot gyrotrons on their heads?

        3. John Smith 19 Gold badge

          But if you get higher temperatures...start to use the existing turbines in coal plants

          Correct.

          This was the key innovation of the UK Advanced Gas-cooled Reactor programme.

          Historically PWR's (the dominante global design) have dlivered barely 300c steam and it's quite poor quality. Quite a lot of water still in it that condense out eaasily, triggering errosion.

          PWR steam turbines are about 10x the cost of conventional coal or oil plant that operate aroud 538c in the US, closer to 600c in the rest of the world. Non PWR turbines are OTS with multiple suppliers and sizes.

          Historically borehole geothermal has been either down disused oirlwells using low boiling point liquids (EG alkanes around 60c) or brine, which is very chemically agressive.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

      I think you misunderstand - 300C isnt the temperature that the "drill" operates at, its the ambient temperature at the depth that they plan to drill to.

      If your question "is 300c enough to boil water and therefore drive a turbine to generate electricity?" - then the answer is yes - but the amount of energy your 3d printer consumes to heat the head to 300C is higher than the amount of energy you would generate. Your 3d printer is generating a temperature of 300C by consuming electricity.

      The goal is to consume a temperature of 500/c created by the earths core to generate electricity (by piping water through it and generating steam and using the steam to operate a turbine).

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

        "The goal is to consume a temperature of 500/c created by the earths core to generate electricity"

        But, if we suck all the heat out of the Earths core, what happens to the magnetic field? Those tinfoil hats may need to be re-purposed as radiation shields!!!

        (You just KNOW there will be protests by conspiracy theory nuts and the more extreme greens over this)

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

          Tell them sucking all the heat out of the Earth will mean an end to volcanoes so we won't have to worry about Yellowstone blowing up half the US sometime in the next few hundred thousand years.

          1. very angry man

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            oh but you promised!

          2. Muscleguy

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            You forgot about Taupo though. That big round lake in the middle of NZ’s North Island, just north of the three volcanic mountains? It’s the biggest volcano in NZ. It’s a still active caldera. It built the Central North Island volcanic plateau they had to build a genuine railway spiral to ascend.

            It’s possible the Ancient Greeks heard it go off.

        2. Blank Reg

          Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

          Never mind the magnetic field, from what I've learned from sci-fi we're more likely to unleash Godizlla, find some new deadly virus, split the earth in half or maybe disturb the lizard people.

          1. StuartMcL

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            Don't worry about the lizard people. They've already answered that question:

            https://newatlas.com/energy/quaise-deep-geothermal-drilling-questions/

            Could this unleash the lizard people that inhabit the inner sphere?

            How do we know they did not already drill up using this technology and are already amongst us?

            1. that one in the corner Silver badge

              Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

              Thanks for URL.

              That article headlines the use case that comments here are suggesting - using the FDH to feed into existing power stations' turbines - before covering the more important topics, such as Kaiju.

              Although it is a bit worrying - they say that this tech isn't what destroyed Krypton, but the picture at the top clearly shows a chunk of planet blown off and flung up into the clouds!

          2. DS999 Silver badge

            Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

            disturb the lizard people

            Wasn't that a Doctor Who episode from way back?

            1. that one in the corner Silver badge

              Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

              1970 - and it was only because we provided the extra energy to let the Silurians power their de-hibernation machines!

            2. Francis Boyle

              Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

              And done multiple times since then but at least last time round we got lizard lesbians.

              1. TDog

                Are they watchable on pornhub?

              2. Andy The Hat Silver badge

                Re: Is 500°C (932°F) hot enough?

                Was David Icke a lesbian too? :-)

  2. jmch Silver badge
    Boffin

    Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

    I used to see geothermal as quite niche before I came across this article:

    https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2020/10/21/21515461/renewable-energy-geothermal-egs-ags-supercritical

    It still is very niche, BUT the potential energy that can be tapped is, theoretically, enough to power human activity for millions of years. Even tapping into only a small part of it would 'solve' energy. What is really interesting is that from a physics point of view it's very straightforward. cold water goes down, steam comes up, you can even feed the steam into current oil/gas turbines, and you can drill for it anywhere in the world if you have the technology to go deep enough. That makes it a very simple* engineering problem (as opposed to the complexities still involved in attaining workable fusion), it works anywhere in the world 24/7 (as opposed to the intemittance and/or locality-dependance of wind, solar, hydro, tidal...)

    *note the difference between 'simple' (the idea of digging vertically for 10km is very straightforward after all) and 'easy', which it absolutely is not!

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

      Good link, thanks. A nice geothermal example is to visit Bath, Somerset and enjoy floating in the hot water.

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

        Or, if you have the cash handy, visit Iceland and do the same, at the likes of The Blue Lagoon which is actually the outflow from a geothermal plant, after they have extracted the useful heat from it. Oddly, they don't mention that in the brochure, as "bathe in the power station outflow" sounds a bit too Scarfolk.

      2. ThatOne Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

        I don't really need to travel anywhere to get myself into hot water...

    2. Blank Reg

      Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

      It's even more efficient if you just use the heat directly in a district heating system.

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

        Well there is no reason you can't do both.

        The outflow from the turbine hall is still plenty hot enough for district heating.

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

          If we're talking about repurposing existing turbines in coal plants, there's unlikely to be much of a district to heat (for some reason people don't want to live near them, whodathunkit?)

          New plants, on the other hand; well I can't think of any reason they couldn't be put onto any old industrial estate.

          As it happens, the geothermal plants in Iceland have many kilometres of lagged pipes going out from them for exactly this purpose, because the plants are where the heat is, not where the people are. The roads in Reykjavík don't freeze in winter because of the grid of pipes under the surface.

          1. Manolo
            Flame

            Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

            "If we're talking about repurposing existing turbines in coal plants, there's unlikely to be much of a district to heat"

            You can transport the hot water over quite a distance. In The Netherlands, waste heat from industries in the Rotterdam harbour is (going to be) piped to The Hague.

            https://www.portofrotterdam.com/en/news-and-press-releases/start-of-construction-of-heat-pipeline-between-the-port-of-rotterdam-and

            1. Red Ted
              Go

              Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

              The Reykjavik District heating pipes the hot water about 30km from the springs to the city.

              One place I stayed in Iceland had a "total loss" heating system. The hot water came out of a local spring, was passed through the house radiators and then ran back out to the drain!

              1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

                Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

                One place I stayed in Reykjavík, on the Laugarnes peninsular, the hot water supply was directly from the spring, rather than through a secondary heating system. It took a couple of days to get used to the eggy smell in the shower.

                1. Scott 53

                  Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

                  It took a couple of days to get used to the eggy smell in the shower.

                  If there's no dog around, you have to blame the water.

                2. Manolo
                  Joke

                  Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

                  "It took a couple of days to get used to the eggy smell in the shower"

                  At least you don't have to blame the dog.

      2. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge
        Holmes

        Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

        If this really takes off to the point where we (some areas?) don't need gas heating anymore, I wonder whether we could repurpose our gas pipes to be use to carry hot water into the home.

        Change everybody's boiler for a heat exchanger ( should be cheaper than a boiler and easier to fit ) and stick the cost of the replacement on their energy bill until it's paid off. As it's waste heat and the only marginal costs are of the pumping and maintenance of the pipes, that shouldn't take long.

        ( Mines the one with the...oh, you can't light a pipe with an induction hob )

        1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

          Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

          So I'd have water spurting out of my cooker? Makes a change from them Americans with gas spurting from their taps.

        2. Binraider Silver badge

          Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

          Domestic gas pipes are intended for pressures barely above atmospheric. They are also one way (from street to the boiler).

        3. Muscleguy

          Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

          I have one of those, it’s called a heat pump. I have no use for gas now. Swapped the gas hob for induction. Much more powerful as well as more energy efficient. Just waiting for BG to come remove the meter then no more standing charge either. Booked for later this month.

    3. Muscleguy

      Re: Could this be the energy source that 'solves' energy for humanity??

      As you approach Taupo in the centre of NZ’s north island you see signs on State Highway 1 of steam obscuring the road. NZ’s geothermal energy plant is just West of the road. It’s rather volcanic around there.

      There will be lots of hot rocks at shallow depths ALL over NZ.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Coat

      The *real* cold War era tunnel boring machine...

      Was called a "Subterene"

      This was outlinedin the late 60's/early 70's by one of the US National Labs (Los Alamos or Livermore IIRC) that just a small nuclear reactor to melt through rock and use the melted rock as the tunnel wall.

      Quite neat.

      Naturally their knowledge of building compact nuclear reactors with high enrichment gave them insight into the problem.

      IIRC there were some prototypes done using electric heating but IRL that was as far as it got.

      I always supsected it was popsci writeups of this that inspired the move "Battle Beneath The Earth"

  3. steelpillow Silver badge
    Holmes

    How deep?

    "Drill much deeper [than 400 feet (c 120 m)], and the heat of the Earth's crust wears drill bits out too quickly to be practical."

    Really? The deepest oil wells max out around 40,000 ft (12,000 m), a hundred times deeper. Seems to me there is something more to it than this.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: How deep?

      Feels about right. In a previous employment I designed deep well guidance control systems; we tested the electronics to operate reliably at 150C and were starting to look at 175 and 200C when I left. Even 150 is not easy; all the things you're used to with electronics start to change in subtle or not-so-subtle ways when they have to work across the range from -60 to +150...

    2. Sgt_Oddball

      Re: How deep?

      I'd hazard a guess that the holes needed for geothermal are somewhat larger hence the issue. I mean using an oil drill would probably result in something akin to a high pressure hosepipe - somewhat decent for pushing small stuff but not for when you want some real oomph in your violent water.

    3. Persona

      Re: How deep?

      The deepest oil wells max out around 40,000 ft (12,000 m),

      No they don't. The deepest bore hole ever drilled is the Kola Superdeep Borehole. It was 12,262 meters deep and took 20 years to drill. Oil wells do not go that deep, some however do "extend" up to 15,000m as a lot of the distance is horizontal rather that vertical. It is order of magnitude easier to drill horizontally for that distance instead of going vertically down.

      1. SW10
        Stop

        Re: How deep?

        I know a bit about this stuff - ahem - I pioneered a lot of the data gathering that went on when North Sea wells started going horizontal

        The limiting factor here in my view is the weight of the in-hole assembly, and therefore the strength, size, and, um, weight of the pipe (cable in some cases) - to say nothing of the horsepower needed to drag the bloody thing in and out the hole

        It’s kinda like the rocket fuel/weight conundrum- without the luxury of jettisoning stages

        1. bazza Silver badge

          Re: How deep?

          I imagine too that it has something to do with the rock type. I'm assuming that rocks associated with oil are sedimentary, and likely quite soft. Whereas geothermal energy is something that might mean drilling through granite or rocks of that genre, which sounds a lot harder.

          1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

            Re: How deep?

            If I remember my geology correctly, the rocks that produce the oil and gas are sedimentary, but the ones that trap it in place tend to be impermeable igneous ones, which will be the ones you have to drill through to get to the gas/oil pocket, and igneous rocks (granite and basalt) tend to be anything other than soft.

            1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

              Re: How deep?

              Very (very) roughly, igneous rocks tend to be very old (in the UK, they tend to be Cambrian / Pre-Cambrian, so say 500million years old +).

              Oil and gas reservoirs tend to be carboniferous (I think - that's where the coal tends to be anyway), so about 300 million years old.

              Geology, being fun, does sometimes arrange the old rocks on top of the young rocks, but typically oil and gas reservoirs are capped by sedimentary type rocks ( clays / claystones / mudstones ). What matters is porosity (how much empty space there is between rock particles for oil or gas to collect in) and permeability (how connected up those voids are / how quickly oil / gas can flow up through the rock).

              All very simplified, you understand.

              1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

                Re: How deep?

                Addenda, because I was too late to edit - The Kimmeridge Clay Formation, which is an oil bearing formation, is Jurassic, so ~200 million years old (exposed on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, runs under Yorkshire and into the North Sea).

              2. Muscleguy

                Re: How deep?

                The oil found West of Shetland is below the oceanic crust. The oil and gas you sae doesn’t always stay put. It was a hunch by an engineer who took some time to get enough investors to go drill.

      2. jmch Silver badge

        Re: How deep?

        The 'longest' well is 40k feet, but that's not true vertical distance. But there are oil wells that are 30k feet+ straight down...

        https://oilprice.com/Energy/Energy-General/The-Truth-About-The-Worlds-Deepest-Oil-Well.html

        I think the difference from geothermal is cost/benefit. A given volume of oil can be burned to generate a far larger volume of steam for a turbine, so from an energy perspective the dollar value per volume of oil is far higher than the dollar value per volume of steam. So it's economically viable to drill a 10km oil well, but not (at the moment) to drill a 10km geothermal well.

        Hence the interest in the vaporising technology that can make drilling ultra-deep wells easier and cheaper

      3. Roj Blake Silver badge

        Re: a lot of the distance is horizontal rather that vertical

        Like this?

        https://static.simpsonswiki.com/images/3/33/Burns_Slant_Drilling_Co.png

    4. martinusher Silver badge

      Re: How deep?

      Our daughter spent a couple of years overseeing projects for an oilfield services company in Europe. Her division as "Artificial Lift", they design, install and service electric pumps that are lowered down the borehole -- the traditional 'nodding donkey' type of pump that says "oilfield" in the movies is essentially obsolete, its only used with older, shallower wells. Some of her projects were in Western Europe, places like Holland that we don't immediately associate with oil wells, and it turned out that these pumps are also used for geothermal wells.

      These pumps are modular, they're long skinny things that are supplied with quite large amounts of three phase power down the lead sheathed cable they're suspended on. They're designed to work in very hot and quite nasty conditions.

      (There's a whole world of technologies involved in working in a bore hold -- its about 5" diameter and can be a mile or two long, its never straight, things get stuck in it -- you have to see this stuff to believe it.)

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: How deep?

      It seems very shallow. The big Hellisheiði plant east of Reykjavík draws geothermal water from up to 2km deep in the Hengill volcano and reinjects it between 800-1000m.

      There have been deeper wells drilled in Krafla volcano in the North East during experiments into ultra high temperature supercritical geothermal energy - including into a magma chamber - those Icelanders like to live on the edge.

      One of the biggest issues with geothermal isn’t so much the temperatures as the horrible chemistries created by dissolved acidic gases and problems from scaling as minerals drop out of solution.

      Though this is really interesting stuff.

      1. Claptrap314 Silver badge
        Angel

        Re: How deep?

        That's not the sort of scaling issue we usually discuss here, but okay...

        1. bazza Silver badge

          Re: How deep?

          Cloud is still the answer, or at least I'm sure they'll say so.

          1. that one in the corner Silver badge

            Re: How deep?

            Blockchain! It'll work, trust me!

      2. NXM Silver badge

        Re: How deep?

        Is that a /frikkin/ magma chamber?

    6. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: How deep?

      "Really? The deepest oil wells max out around 40,000 ft (12,000 m), a hundred times deeper. Seems to me there is something more to it than this."

      Apart from what other have said, it might also be a cost/benefit thing too. Once you've drilled a hole for oil, at great expense, you get $millions as a return pretty quickly. Drilling a much larger hole, building a power station on top of it and then selling KW/hours at a much lower rate than extracting the equivalent in oil might mean it's a much longer payback. Any experts here care to comment on that?

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. NeilPost

        Re: How deep?

        Cost/benefit - if doable reutilising an existing Coal Station all your infrastructure already in place. Oil/gas far harder to send to customers (as end products) too.

        If new v’s capital of nuclear, solar, wind, tidal, hydro and legacy coal/gas (new shipped in from origination) costs.

      3. BOFH in Training

        Re: How deep?

        I think the target is power plant operators.

        You get an existing plant (already has all the infrastructure in place, like the grid connection, etc), drill a hole, and you don't need to buy fuel again.

        Just do maintenance, etc which you have to do, regardless of the power plant type you are building.

        It might even be worth it to do new builds if they don't have to pay ongoing fuel cost.

        As a bonus they can claim it's all green energy.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: How deep?

          "As a bonus they can claim it's all green energy."

          Well, once you've offset the initial bootstrap drilling/construction, it is green energy :-)

  4. H in The Hague

    Shallow and deep geothermal wells

    There are shallower wells which produce a lower temperature and are often used with heat pumps, for domestic heating, etc.

    The Westland area of the Netherlands where there are lots of greenhouses which used to be heated by gas are now moving to deep geothermal wells, 2000 - 3000 m, that gives you hot enough water for direct heating, no heat pump needed. Slight problem: the wells also bring natural gas to the surface and there has indeed been an explosion at one of these geothermal plants. The idea is to separate the gas and use that to run a gas engine which generates electricity (for export to the grid), more greenhouse heating, and CO2 (which is also used in the greenhouses to increase plant growth).

    Here's one such project (sorry, website only in Dutch): https://www.triaswestland.nl/

    1. EvilDrSmith Silver badge

      Re: Shallow and deep geothermal wells

      Eden Project in the UK has a geothermal project to provide their own heating requirements. The bore is a bit less than 5km deep, with the injected water heated to 180 degrees C.

      Or that might be the expectation of what they'll get if it's completed - it got into the news because it (unsurprisingly) caused minor earth tremors comparable to what you get from fracking, and that seemed to get some people excited.

  5. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Vapourise

    Imagine that he could make the world a better place and find a way to vapourise Russia.

    1. Fruit and Nutcase Silver badge
      Black Helicopters

      Re: Vapourise

      Just Putin will do

      1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        Re: Vapourise

        For Putin gone, there is 10 worse than him waiting to replace.

        1. My-Handle

          Re: Vapourise

          I for one enjoy shooting wooden ducks in an amusement park gallery, knocking each one down as they come along. Chucking a grenade into the place, while very effective at knocking all the ducks down in one go, is considered bad form.

  6. G2
    Mushroom

    what if ...

    wait wait... so there's a beam that can drill 20 km down into the earth's crust+mantle?

    how fast can it drill? what if instead of drilling into 20 km of the earth's crust+mantle we use it to drill into something much more thin...

    ... let's say 30 centimeters of steel.

    how fast can it drill through 30cm of steel? and how small can the device get? how far from the object being drilled into can the beam emitter stay? can it be used from.. let's say, 100 meters away?

    if it's reasonably small and can be mounted on a drilling rig for 20 km then i imagine it can probably be made a bit smaller when it's needed to operate on a material thickness much smaller than 20 km and from just 100 meters of distance...

    .

    .

    if it's fast on 30 cm and reasonably portable then i can see an immediate, more practical use: steel plate drilling... specifically, tank armour drilling...

    this could become the ultimate anti-tank weapon... especially if it ends up deployed against soviet-type tanks.. imagine the irony.

    ..

    .

    edit: oh.. or the opposite of shrinking the device: increase its mass and operating range and mount it on a satellite. It can become the ultimate space-based weapon - a tank-melting beam dropped down from space.

    1. Claptrap314 Silver badge

      Re: what if ...

      Power supply is an issue.

      1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Re: what if ...

        As is putting anything reflective on the outside of those tanks, which is hat their owners are likely to do as soon as they realise what you are up to. Microwaves might be quite good at cutting through metal, but direct them at *shiny* metal with a high melting point, such as polished tungsten, and you might find that they are even better at cutting through you.

        1. John Robson Silver badge
          Pirate

          Re: what if ...

          With the amount of power we are talking about even a 99.9% reflective surface would vaporise pdq

          1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

            Re: what if ...

            ...and with even 0.1% reflected back would vapourise you quicker.

            For example, let's work out the amount of energy required to heat and melt lets say a 10x10cm hole in 1 mm thickness of tungsten, that's 10 cm3, which is 192.8g, working out to 1.048 moles. The heat capacity of tungsten is 24.8 J/mole and its melting point is 3,422°C, so let's assume you're starting on a warmish day, and you only have to raise the temperature by 3,400°C, the amount of energy required to heat it to melting point is 88.43 KJ. You'll then need to actually melt it. The heat of fusion of tungsten is 35.4KJ/mole, so you'll need a further 37.1 KJ to melt it making around 125.5 KJ in total.

            We'll assume that the surface here is not 99.9% reflective, and be generous and say 50% (that tank is very dirty) to make it easier to absorb, so you'll only need around 250 KJ to melt that hole, rather than 125 MJ.

            Because metals conduct heat well, you'll be wanting to do this quickly, before it dissipates, so you'll be wanting a power supply that can deliver that in less than a second. Let's be generous and say you want to do it in 1s, and this means you'll need a 250kW continuous power supply to take out a millimetre's thickness of tungsten on the surface of that tank under ideal conditions, assuming no attenuation and only 50% reflection, oh and the tank being stationary. You might conceivably fit that into a truck, but that's not going to last long on a battlefield.

            Now, we've got through the reflective armour, you only have to get through the rest of the tank, which is what? Several inches thick, and moving, and heavily armed.

            To be practical, and using your figure of 99.9% reflectivity, you'd need a moderate sized power station to power that weapon. For every joule of heat you deliver to that tank, you're delivering 1kJ back at you. Let's assume that's scattered and you only get 0.1% of that hitting you; unless you've got better armour than that tank, you're doing as much damage to yourself (and everything around you). Your power station is now on fire and being attacked by an angry tank.

            Meanwhile, one anti-tank missile presumably costs less than a power station, and some very good sunglasses.

            1. John Robson Silver badge

              Re: what if ...

              I didn't say it was practical... it was just that at this kind of power, reflectivity needs to be perfect, and it never is, and certainly doesn't remain that way if you start heating things significantly.

              1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

                Re: what if ...

                However, "at this kind of power" is the output of a power station. Also, as noted by others here, the microwave reflectivity of metal conductors is pretty close to perfect, whilst the microwave absorption of humans is pretty much perfect as well, being largely composed of water, and conducting electricity with high conductivity.

                Such a weapon would scatter microwaves all around the place, setting fire to everything, and doing the tank's job for it.

                In other words, you'd need a lot of energy focused very well to melt through metal, and the side-effect would be orders of magnitude more energy being sprayed about the place and hitting things much more susceptible to being damaged by it, including yourself. It would be about as sensible as trying to hammer in a nail by firing a gun at it. You're much more likely to hurt yourself than be successful in your endeavour.

                1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

                  Re: what if ...

                  *I did of course, mean "being largely composed of water, and conducting electricity with high resistance"

                2. cookieMonster Silver badge
                  Joke

                  Re: what if ...

                  True, but you don’t need to melt the armor, cooking the occupants of said tank would suffice

                  1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

                    Re: what if ...

                    For a 60 tonne tank, a little over 1 million moles of iron, with the specific heat capacity of iron at 25 J/mol, and perfect absorption, you're talking 25 MJ to raise the temperature by one degree. To do that in one second, takes 25 MW. Iron is, of course, reflective to microwaves, so even if it absorbs a frankly unrealistic 1% of that radiation (it will be much less), you're talking 2.5 GW to raise it by one degree per second. You'll want to do it quickly, as well, because the rate of heat loss to the environment is proportional to the heat difference (the 4th law of thermodynamics, since you were asking). Oh, and one of the things tanks are not known for is remaining stationary.

                    To put that in perspective, since we're talking science fiction here, you can operate a flux capacitor at 2.1 GW. Have you got your Mr Fusion handy?

                    This approach is actually far, far worse than trying to make a hole in the tank.

                    Once again, it's worth pointing out that if you want to stop a tank, you'd be far better off using an anti-tank weapon.

    2. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: what if ...

      Microwaves reflect off good conductors. Even a fine metal screen will do. It's why we don't all carry gyrotron blasters in steampunk holsters.

      Lots of rocks and minerals conduct electricity and EM energy, but poorly. They're good at being resistive heating elements.

      I still have my doubts that it would be practical. Something will have to suck the rock dust and geothermal steam up several kilometers without clogging. I imagine it's both sticky and heavy.

    3. sitta_europea Silver badge

      Re: what if ...

      " ... what if instead of drilling into 20 km of the earth's crust+mantle we use it to drill into something much more thin... let's say 30 centimeters of steel.

      how fast can it drill through 30cm of steel? and how small can the device get? how far from the object being drilled into can the beam emitter stay? can it be used from.. let's say, 100 meters away?

      if it's reasonably small ..."

      No need for anything fancy with microwaves to do that. Present-day anti-tank munitions can drill a hole through half a metre of armour in a few milliseconds using a jet of molten metal generated by a shaped explosive charge in a warhead weighing no more than a couple of kilos. The UK is sending these things to Ukraine right now.

      What happens after the jet of molten metal gets into the crew compartment doesn't bear thinking about.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLAW

      1. Crypto Monad Silver badge

        Re: what if ...

        No need for anything fancy with microwaves to do that. Present-day anti-tank munitions can drill a hole through half a metre of armour in a few milliseconds

        Turning that around, I offer the Wile E. Coyote method of drilling bore holes:

        1. Light a stick of dynamite

        2. Drop it down a shallow hole

        3. Go back to step 1

        Then you don't need a 20km microwave gyrotron. You just need a 20km vacuum cleaner hose to suck up the rubble.

    4. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: what if ...

      how fast can it drill through 30cm of steel?

      See my calculations above for an idea, this depends wholly on the power supply

      and how small can the device get?

      It's not a question of how small can the device be, it's more a question of how big does the power supply need to be? This ties in with your first question.

      how far from the object being drilled into can the beam emitter stay?

      If it's a focused beam, then attenuation is going to be linear (i.e. by a fixed % per unit distance through air), otherwise the reverse square law applies.

      can it be used from.. let's say, 100 meters away?

      Depends on how big your power station is, and how much of its output you're swallowing up (a typical power station output is several GW). In order to be effective, you'd probably be using up most of that, because of the combination of beam attenuation, reflection, and a moving target. You'd better have a fire crew standing by for dealing with misses as well, because things like trees, plants, and houses are much better absorbers of microwaves than metals.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Pirate

        Re: what if ...

        You'd better have a fire crew standing by for dealing with misses as well, because things like trees, plants, and houses are much better absorbers of microwaves than metals.

        Do not aim at the metal thing, is wast of time: aim at the ground around it. Tank does not work well travelling through boiling rock. Works even less well when rock solidifies. Also probably rock will boil explosively.

      2. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge
        Mushroom

        Re: what if ...

        You could conceivably put such a weapon on a nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

        I'd imagine the nuclear reactors would need upgrading or augmenting though.

        1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: what if ...

          They'll probably stick with experiments with chemical lasers for now. Who's for a tanker full of extremely hazardous fluorine compounds as a by-product?

    5. NeilPost

      Re: what if ...

      Broadly the ploy synopsis to StarTrek (2009) reboot.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_(film)

    6. Mooseman Silver badge

      Re: what if ...

      "if it's fast on 30 cm and reasonably portable then i can see an immediate, more practical use: steel plate drilling... "

      Imagine if you could mount it on a shark....

  7. Stuart Dole

    Local hot rocks

    We're fortunate to live in an area with lots of shallow hot rocks - the north part of the San Francisco Bay Area, particularly the Geysers Geothermal Field. Most of our electricity comes from the steam from those hot rocks - they injecting treated sewage (about 14 million gallons a day) into the rocks, and the steam turns lots of turbines. On still mornings you can see the columns of steam (vapor) over the hillsides where they do this. Unfortunately, the web of power lines that service all those generators sometimes fail and start nasty wildfires - but they're working on upgrades.

  8. Pete 2 Silver badge

    Blowback

    > Quaise wants to have vaporized a hole 10 times the depth of Woskov's lab experiments

    so where does all this hot, vaporised rock go?

    1. Warm Braw

      Re: Blowback

      Dunno, but I do know I wouldn't want to have the lab downstairs.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Blowback

        ... but you really wouldn't want it upstairs

    2. tip pc Silver badge

      Re: Blowback

      Some junkies nose?

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: Blowback

      It makes dark and heavy, ominous clouds and then rains hailstones as it condenses. Where's my AR15 steel umbrella?

    4. Anonymous Coward Silver badge
      Holmes

      Re: Blowback

      It's OK, they're going to dig another hole to put the spoils in.

    5. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: Blowback

      Also, not mentioned in the article is both how deep Quase's hole is (fnarr) and how long it took to melt it.

      1 cm per day isn't going to cut it (pun absolutely intended).

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Blowback

        > Also, not mentioned in the article is both how deep Quase's hole is

        Actually it is. The article states "By the end of 2022, Quaise wants to have vaporized a hole 10 times the depth of Woskov's lab experiments", and you can see those experiments in the picture. They are at best a centimeter deep, so Quaise is targeting 10 cm for 2022, and in 2023 hopes to reach a meter.

        I guess he hopes to keep this progression (10x a year), which means it's 10 m in 2024, 100 m in 2025, and a kilometer in 2026. Of course I don't know anything about microwave drilling, but that sounds like wishful thinking to me, they will certainly have to solve additional issues at deeper depths (like molten rock vapor having the time to cool off and condensing on the drilling gear and the hole wall).

        1. Swarthy

          Re: Blowback

          Not in The Fine Article, but linked in an earlier comment, they plan to be able to drill 20km in 100 days.

          @ThatOne: One of us is having challenges assessing depth in that picture; most of those look 2-3cm deep. I'm assuming that there are off-camera experiments (too big to pose with) that are in larger chunks of rock.

          1. ThatOne Silver badge

            Re: Blowback

            > @ThatOne: One of us is having challenges assessing depth in that picture; most of those look 2-3cm deep

            All those holes are bordered by crater rims I (arbitrarily, I admit) estimated to be as high as the hole is deep. So the crater is about 1 cm deep, while the crater bottom - top of rim height is about 2 cm. We're both right.

        2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

          Re: Blowback

          Ok so that *might* answer the "how deep" question, but not the "how long" one. (fnarr, fnarr)

          He also doesn't mention energy requirements (I doubt vapourising rock is cheap in terms of energy usage, you're talking 1000°C or so just to melt it, depending on the type of rock). If it takes the output of a power station to drill a borehole, and takes months to do so, are the costs ever going to add up?

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Blowback

            "If it takes the output of a power station to drill a borehole, and takes months to do so, are the costs ever going to add up?"

            It might. Once you've got the hole, barring earthquakes, you've got the hole forever. Making use of the hole, ie generating electricity from the hole is where the on-going costs will occur.

            1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

              Re: Blowback

              There's probably a few factors that will limit the "lifetime" of that hole for practical uses, without having to re-bore it or bore a new one from time to time.

              The ones I can think of are:

              Mineralisation - hot water under pressure tends to dissolve things. Hot water under pressure with dissolved things tends to precipitate them again when the heat and / or pressure is reduced. This is likely to mean mineral transfer from the bottom of the hole to the top over time, causing it to "fur up", because there will be a temperature gradient, even if slight.

              Heat transfer - I'm not sure how well hot rocks under pressure conduct heat, but if you're extracting that heat, over time, there will be less of it. Again, I don't know how quickly this will happen, and how quickly heat from surrounding rocks will be conducted in, but in theory, eventually, the temperature at the bottom of the hole would fall, reducing the thermodynamic efficiency of the power plant on top.

              "Fracking" - injection of cold water into hot rocks will crack them, causing fissures over time, and the slow break-up of the rock at the bottom of the hole. Presumably, this is going to result in a "chamber" at the bottom of the hole, which might not be a big problem, but eventually, due to the elastic compressibility of hot fluids, you could get some problems with pressure building up in waves, as with a geyser, which probably would cause problems up-top.

              Integrity of the borehole - cracking of the rocks further up from the bottom of the hole, due to similar effects, could also cause problems, potentially blocking the borehole, or causing the injected water to leak into surrounding rocks at a lesser depth. Steam produced at the bottom of the borehole could also end up leaking into surrounding rocks on the way back up.

              In terms of injecting water into hot rocks at depth, and retrieving it as steam, presumably you want some sort of loop with two boreholes, rather than one, with water being injected into one borehole, and the steam being retrieved from the other. I'm not sure how you'd go about connecting the two boreholes at depth, whilst preventing them from "short-circuiting" at a shallower depth. Presumably, they will need to be some way apart, and have no geological faults anywhere between them.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: Blowback

                I just had a look at how current geothermal plants work, and based on that, much of what you describe are possible issues. I would assume those issues are known and accounted for in some though. On the other hand, the depths being talked about are for "simply" drilling down to where it's hot enough to create thermal differences to generate steam rather than drilling into specific hot water reservoirs. In this latter case, I would assume (and may well be wrong) that the plan is to create a system that I mistakenly thought was what actually happens now, ie pipes down the hole, injecting cold water down, it heats as it goes down, reaching peak temperature at the bottom loop and comes back up the return pipe as pressurised steam to run the turbines and creating a closed loop. Of course, a sealed 20km pipe might be an issue to create (and the 20km back up!)

                On the other hand, I think sub-surface temperature increase 1c every 30 metres or so, so does the hole really need to be all that much more than 3km deep rather than 20km? This is definitely not my area of expertise, so I'm throwing out assumptions and questions in the hope better informed people may be able to provide answers or discussion on that I'm not really finding on t'interwebs :-)

  9. Charles E

    Project Inferno

    I think we all know where this is headed. Green slime starts coming out of the hole, turning the Professor into a Primord. Section Leader Liz Shaw must intervene.

  10. eldakka
    Coat

    Gyrotron?

    Is this just a new marketing name for hula-hoops? Are we about to see a second fad wave of 'gyrotrons' being sold to kids?

    1. TimMaher Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Gyrotron?

      Mine’s gathering dust in the garage. Ran out of covfefe supplies so it no longer starts up.

      I think I left my coat in the garage too.

  11. Anthidote

    Even 200°C has applications

    While replacing every polluting power station would be nice, there are definitely massive advantages to having a well spit out lower temps as well.

    I live in Eastern Europe, and we have centralized municipal heating. Usually, this is some co-generation of a waste incinerator+natural gas.

    If the natural gas heating could be replaced with geothermal, that would massively shift our energy consumption to sth that's non-carbon. I'm sure e.g. the Finns would be thrilled as well. For them, heating is a massive outlay.

    Since the upfront cost would be massive in any case, but the heat generation potential of such a well is presumably unlimited (don't know, just rolling with it) I could imagine cities partnering with chemical plants that need a lot of relatively low temp heat to sell off excess capacity.

    Even this would reduce energy consumption quite a lot. Crucially, from a geopolitical standpoint, it would severely threaten the leverage of our big eastern neighbor.

    What I'm concerned about is that "the engineering problems still need to be worked out" and the target date is 2026. Nuclear fusion-based electricity generation has been 5 years away for 60 years...

    1. John Robson Silver badge

      Re: Even 200°C has applications

      No reason you can't use the outflow from the turbines for district/municipal heating.

      1. Anthidote

        Re: Even 200°C has applications

        Certainly. However, currently, geothermal power generation seems to be a bit less economically viable than using it simply for heating. The lower the temperature, the more tricks you have to employ to move a turbine. There are these "dual systems" where some lower temp steam heats something like propane with a lower boiling point, but you rarely get above low double-digit MW.

        The attraction of digging these deeper wells is that the temps would be a lot higher and that the power generation would be a lot more efficient, then the runoff heat could be used for industry, agriculture and to heat homes like you say.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Even 200°C has applications

      " Nuclear fusion-based electricity generation has been 5 years away for 60 years..." don't you mean " Nuclear fusion-based electricity generation has been 50 years away for the last 6 years..recurring"?

      1. Anthidote

        Re: Even 200°C has applications

        No. The point I'm making is that economically viable nuclear fusion power generation has been promised to be "just around the corner" since the early 60s. Just a couple "technical details" to be worked out first.

  12. that one in the corner Silver badge

    Battle Beneath The Planet

    Keep your ears pressed to the ground - They are coming!

    https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0061387/

  13. Binraider Silver badge

    Estimates of the thermal energy from the earths interior to the surface are of the order 44 TW. Global, yearly, net electricity consumption is somewhere of order 23,845TWh.

    Capturing 1/8th of that heat flow would therefore satisfy most of global demand. As that heat was otherwise destined to just come to the surface and be radiated off anyway, the impact of capturing and using it, in geological terms; zero.

    I have heard worse ideas; if this can be made to work it would be an extremely useful tool. Lot of orgs will have a vested interest in discouraging it from happening of course.

    On a long enough timescale we would need other tools; but a solution that will be good for tens of thousands of years is a big improvement over the current situation where we maybe had 3 to 4 centuries of supply at industrial revolution levels; tops.

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      > Lot of orgs will have a vested interest in discouraging it from happening of course.

      Of course. You can't make money off something that you build and then runs all on itself. You absolutely have to use some technology you can sell something to on a regular basis!

      Actually nobody will accept geothermal energy, of course not the oil/gas/nuclear lobby, but even most "green" politicians will be against it, because it isn't their own pet solution and it doesn't profit to the people who pay them.

      As for the masses, they will as usual be told what to believe by those who have vested financial interests in promoting their own solution, no matter how deleterious it is: My profit is well worth sacrificing some of you, you bunch of egoists!

      1. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge
        Facepalm

        The greens will be against it because it will mean that people can continue to live their lives as they please.

        If it isn't draconian the greens aren't interested.

        1. Binraider Silver badge

          Not all greens are so unfairly minded :-P

          But yes, some of them are keen on returning to living in huts in swamps and rejecting any other form of progress.

      2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

        Actually nobody will accept geothermal energy, of course not the oil/gas/nuclear lobby, but even most "green" politicians will be against it, because it isn't their own pet solution and it doesn't profit to the people who pay them.

        Meanwhile, in Iceland...

        1. ThatOne Silver badge

          Well, in Iceland it would be stupid to not use it, given they live on an island full of active volcanoes (with or without supervillain lairs).

          It would be much less obvious to do in Massachusetts, for instance.

  14. Death Boffin
    Flame

    Several operational issues

    Gyrotrons are big. They need large magnets in order to work, so you won't be fitting one down the borehole. That means you will have to direct the microwave energy down the borehole.

    The gyrotrons produce mm-wave energy. That means having to pipe it around using waveguide. Waveguide is quite lossy at those frequencies, so you need to do trickery like quasi-optics to keep losses low. This needs finely machined and polished waveguide pipe, which is very expensive.

    When you get the energy to the target, you have to deal with the vaporized material. This is one of the problems with beam weapons. You puff off a cloud of vapor and immediately your beam starts heating the vapor instead of the target. So you have to get rid of the vapor, some 20km away.

    Finally, you have your hole and can start producing steam. You can't run that steam directly into a turbine. It has a lot of nasty silica and acids in it. These tend to clog up the pipes. The local geothermal plant periodically cleans the scale off and sends it off for reprocessing because it has significant amounts of gold in it. So yo you need to have a heat exchanger. Only then can you produce power.

    Given these difficulties, this may work sometime, but don't expect it soon.

    1. Binraider Silver badge

      Re: Several operational issues

      On beam-weapon countermeasures, I recall a discussion in a GZG near-future sci-fi wargaming title that postulated that once you have acquired a target you can hit it. However, the range of countermeasures available is extensive. Aerosols, ablatives, ECM, etc. The argument made was that beams are potent when used against a low tech opponent, but not necessarily that effective against a well equipped one. And they are both expensive and hard to power compared to alternative options.

      Pretty well thought out argument, as it happens.

      The same publication also postulated that crew and infantry would still have a role rather than drones, mostly because a table full of wargames figures is far more entertaining a than a few robot drones; when one is dealing with fantasy not reality. (And they do have a minifig business to accompany the rules).

      Not a bad set of guesses on their part for a small-time wargames rules writer from the mid-1990s.

  15. osxtra

    A Different Tack

    Need energy? Sap the seas via electro-wave generators.

    Need energy? Sap the earth by drilling holes to allow its heat to escape.

    Need energy? Sap the winds by erecting huge fans to capture it.

    Need energy? Sap all plant life (and eventually, us), by blowing previously sequestered carbon back into the skies, which will eventually smother what is below.

    The problem with all those methods is they're extracting energy from our own closed-system, the Earth. Yet, we have a constant supply of energy coming in from outside the planet.

    Why we don't make more use of it is a mystery.

    (Well, OK, not *so* much a mystery. More a reluctance for people making money to consider other ways of making money).

    So: Need energy? Just use the sun. It's got all the energy we need, and is anyway the ultimate source of all the energy we currently have.

    Sure, we're not there yet, technology-wise, but things have been moving faster and faster this past century or so.

    Before too long, when Tsiolkovsky's space elevators (neatly described nearly a century later in Clark's Fountains of Paradise) are up and running, and someone equally as bright as Nikola Tesla has finally figured out how to handle ground when transmitting electricity in wireless fashion (or maybe it won't even be electricity, just another wavelength converted back and forth as needed), it'll be a piece of cake.

    Simply place the collectors outside the gravity well, tethered and adding to the mass that keeps an elevator from falling back to earth, and beam power from points along the tethers to whatever device may need it. A few hundred feet up for most buildings, vehicles, or pedestrians. Higher for aircraft. Under water or ground may take a little more research.

    Look, Ma! No extension cords!

    Sure, sounds like science fiction, but in Verne's and Wells' time, so did space travel.

    Would just be nice if we could grow up a little, and stop acting like little three year olds wanting to hold on to the sugar cube we have, when the chocolate banana-cream pie we're going to know how to bake down the road will taste so much better.

    The only way to learn how to bake that pie is with practice. If we try but once a generation when crisis-de-jou rears its ugly head, it'll be scads of those before any progress is made. If we try every day, even just a little, progress will come that much quicker.

    1. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: A Different Tack

      The problem with your argument is that:

      1) Taking energy from the waves doesn't remove it from the closed system, ultimately, that energy would either be lost to space via heat from friction, or heat from being used.

      2) Same argument for heat from the Earth's depths. It would ultimately be lost to space via infrared radiation. The only effect from speeding this up slightly might be an incredibly marginal reduction in the amount of heat available for volcanism. I would not class this as a negative (or even measurable) effect. You'd have to extract an AWFUL lot of heat to cause any noticeable cooling.

      3) Wind power and wave power have the same argument - this energy is otherwise wasted into space ultimately from heating effects from friction / turbulence. The net effect of taking some of it and using it for useful work is zero on the system as a whole. You'd have to fill the skies with pretty much edge-to-edge windmills to have a noticeable effect on the amount of wind, so your argument makes about as much sense as the people who complain that wind turbines are making it windier because they're big fans (allegedly). Next up: birds aren't real, etc.

      4) If you're referring to burning fuels with your allusion to "sapping all plant life", well then, yes, that's the point of renewable energy, so you don't have to do that.

      5) Technically solar power is using energy that would otherwise be largely reflected back into space (unless you're putting your solar panels in front of something with a lower albedo). On a large scale, this technically would lead to warming (although I doubt it would be noticeable). The problems are really that it prevents that land being used for other things (like growing crops, forestation, grazing, etc.), and that solar power is subject to weather, seasons, and the diurnal cycle, and doesn't produce that much energy for the amount of surface area used (although efficiencies are improving). By all means, stick panels on roofs, and so on, but you have to be mindful of edging out other uses for the land they are on.

    2. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

      Re: A Different Tack

      Sure, sounds like science fiction, but in Verne's and Wells' time, so did space travel.

      Space travel, as describe by Jules Verne very much still is science fiction. Unless you fancy being fired out of a gun at high G. Let me know when you've found of way of not being turned into jam by that.

      As for HG Wells, I'm pretty sure that if there is any life on Mars, it's microbial and isn't coming here in cylinders with tripods with heat-rays. Still sci-fi there, buddy.

    3. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      Re: A Different Tack

      Need energy? Sap the seas via electro-wave generators.

      Need energy? Sap the earth by drilling holes to allow its heat to escape.

      Need energy? Sap the winds by erecting huge fans to capture it.

      Your 1st and 3rd options are "solar" power. Wave and wind energy is created by heat from the sun. You re never, ever going to "sap" that energy such that the wind stops blowing or the seas all end up a mirror flat calm. As for the Earths internal heat, there is no way Humanity could "sap" enough heat to be noticeable for the foreseeable future without some sort of massive SciFi project that today we can't even imagine. You seem to have no concept of the mind boggling huge numbers involved in the sheer size of the planet and the tiny pin pricks even 20km deep holes would be.

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