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China Government Science Technology

US Gives $120M For Lab To Tackle Rare Earth Shortages 170

Posted by samzenpus
from the making-rare-more-common dept.
coondoggie writes "With China once again playing games with the rare earth materials it largely holds sway over, the U.S. Department of Energy today said it would set up a research and development hub that will bring together all manner of experts to help address the situation. The DOE awarded $120 million to Ames Laboratory to set up an Energy Innovation Hub that will develop solutions to the domestic shortages of rare earth metals and other materials critical for U.S. energy security, the DOE stated."
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US Gives $120M For Lab To Tackle Rare Earth Shortages

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  • Solution (Score:2, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Just lick butt of mighty China.

    Now give me my $120M please.

    • This would explain why they need to get all the precious metal.

  • by rolfwind (528248) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:32AM (#42543993)

    I realize it's going to take robots/remote control machines and such but what is the real hurdle to ocean mining because I imagine that there is a lot of unexplored spots in the world and there could be a ton of material in the oceans just waiting for us.

    • by CSMoran (1577071) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:35AM (#42544007) Journal

      what is the real hurdle to ocean mining

      The first google hit on "rare earths ocean" says this

      Deep-sea mining is an old idea, but one that has yet to prove itself in the face of high costs and environmental concerns. Discovered decades ago, chunks of manganese on the ocean floor and deposits of metals such as zinc and copper in the Red Sea have proven impractical to mine.

      “I don’t understand how this can be expected to be an economic way to recover rare earth,” says Daniel Cordier, a mineral commodity specialist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Minerals Information Center in Reston, Va.

      • by balsy2001 (941953) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:56AM (#42544253)
        The other idea that gets thrown around a lot is to make them in a reactor. I used to work at a DOE facility where every year or so we would be asked about this specific problem and if we couldn't just make X isotope. Sure you can make all kinds of elements through transmutation, but the volume of production is just not very high unless you have massive amounts of infrastructure to create them (lots of reactors specifically for the task) and for most things special chemical facilities to separate all of the various radioactive stuff out (if you put in a specimen X you don't just get 100% of Y after a certain amount of time, and because of special DOE moratoriums it would be nearly impossible to "free release" any of this material for commercial/industrial use). That is why generally speaking it only makes sense to produce a limited number of elements in this manner, usually ones you don't need a lot of and ones you specifically want to be radioactive (there are some medical isotopes and cobalt sources for imaging where this does make sense and is done).
      • by todrules (882424)
        Basically, it's just like extracting oil from tar sands. Until very recently it was just not economically viable to get oil that way. However, once the price of oil hit a certain mark, then it was. Ocean mining for minerals is the same way. At the moment, it's not economically viable. At some point in the future, it will be.
    • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:48AM (#42544049)

      Ocean mining is not necessary because there is no particular shortage of rare earth ore. China is not the leader because they have the only rare earths, but because low labor costs made it cheaper to mine them there. Since they began to impose export restriction, rising prices have enabled operations to restart in several mines, including the Mountain Pass Mine [wikipedia.org] in California.

      But reducing the need for rare earths is also a good idea, so the research being funded makes sense. However, just handing out grants is the wrong approach . It would be much better to set out the goals and offer specific awards for achieving them. Competitive contests, like the DARPA Grand Challenge [wikipedia.org], the Ansari X Prize [wikipedia.org], and the Google Lunar X Prize [wikipedia.org], have been far more effective at achieving results than grant based funding.

      • by Luckyo (1726890) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:09AM (#42544109)

        Not so much about cheap labour as it is about less stringent environmental standards. The biggest cost of rare earth mining is keeping it as clean as regulations require and China has large areas which are completely and utterly poisoned by rare earth mining.

        That's in fact one of the reasons (and the main official reason) why China is currently restricting rare earth exports. Mining and refining rare earths is a very toxic process.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by telchine (719345)

        However, just handing out grants is the wrong approach . It would be much better to set out the goals and offer specific awards for achieving them.

        The goal in this case is to obtain materials. And the reward is money. So you're suggesting that we offer money in exchange for rare earth materials. That's called buying it. We do that already and it's expensive. I think funding research is a good idea in this case!

        • by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:43AM (#42544217)

          The goal in this case is to obtain materials.

          No, that is not the goal. The goal of the research is to reduce or eliminate the need for the rare earth metals.

          • by Shavano (2541114)

            The goal in this case is to obtain materials.

            No, that is not the goal. The goal of the research is to reduce or eliminate the need for the rare earth metals.

            No, the goal is to get the cost, including externalities, below the utility.

          • by EL_mal0 (777947)
            Well, not really. According to TFA, the goals of the studies are to:

            Diversify Supply - enable new sources of critical materials that are not now commercially viable, improve the economics of processing existing sources, and identify new uses for co-products and by-products that do not currently contribute to the economics of materials production.

            Develop Substitutes - design and deploy replacement materials that have lower or zero critical materials content, and develop a knowledge-based approach to accelerate advanced material development and deployment.

            Improve Reuse and Recycling - both reduce demand and increase supply by developing economically viable technologies for efficient material use in manufacturing, recycling, and reuse.

            Conduct Crosscutting Research - develop theoretical, computational, and experimental tools necessary to support the basic science needs of the other focus areas; develop and apply strategies to assess and address environmental sustainability and the life cycle of new CMI developed materials and processes; and evaluate the social and economic viability of the CMI developed science and engineering solutions.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Grants are not "just handed out". Grants are awarded to the best plan that is submitted.

        Also, grants are much better, because they allow many more different types of research to be funded, rather than just the tiny scope of engineering challenges. Yes, each of these engineering challenges is good, and yes they produce results, but that is because engineering lends itself perfectly for such a challenge. The general idea is the same, but the approaches to the problem are different; doing them in parallel and

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by ShanghaiBill (739463) *

          Grants are not "just handed out". Grants are awarded to the best plan that is submitted.

          Have you ever worked in a research lab? I have. We had two tiers of scientists. The best people were dedicated to the activity that brought in the revenue: writing proposals. The second tier spent their time on less important tasks, like doing research. The primary purpose of the research was to produce non-definitive results that could be used to justify more funding.

          During the 1980s and 1990s DARPA poured tens of millions into research on robotics and automated vehicles, all for little effect. Then

          • by h4rr4r (612664)

            During the 80s and 90s that sort of computer power was barely possible to create. The money DARPA spent on those automated vehicles and other projects for AI and computer vision are why later competitions could even be held.

          • During the 1980s and 1990s DARPA poured tens of millions into research on robotics and automated vehicles, all for little effect. Then they offered a small fraction of their previous spending as a monetary prize for a specific result, and the result was rapid and revolutionary progress. Competition works.

            Or, to rephrase for those not completely ignorant of historical context:

            During the 1980s and 1990s, when computing power was still very limited, sensors were very expensive, sensor integration was an active and immature research area, DARPA put a lot of money into the kinds of project that would produce the physical devices and algorithms required for this kind of thing. Now that all of the building blocks exist as commodity off-the-shelf parts (many, in part, because of their DARPA funding for the early

          • by thoth (7907)

            The primary purpose of the research was to produce non-definitive results that could be used to justify more funding

            Come on, the real hurdle in research is paying for the initial very expensive part. After that, when the mistakes are made and lessons learned, and engineering processes improved/perfected and supplementary systems built, then sure, it's cheap, easy, and obvious and corporations can swoop in. But don't pretend they would have been there without the funding guarantees and expensive earlier part first. The modern corporation doesn't wipe its ass without a clear profit inventive, since they have to answer to s

      • by serviscope_minor (664417) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:53AM (#42544249) Journal

        China is not the leader because they have the only rare earths, but because low labor costs made it cheaper to mine them there.

        It's a mixture of several things:
        * low labour costs
        * lax safety standards
        * lax environmental standards
        * goverment subsidy plus dumping to put everyone else out of business

        • by TubeSteak (669689)

          * goverment subsidy plus dumping to put everyone else out of business

          [Citation Needed]
          If anything, China has one the opposite of dumping, by severely restricting the export of refined rare earths.
          The USA went to the WTO twice last year to try and force China to increase their exports.

          China is the leader because they bought almost all the mining and refining capacity.
          The parent governments could have prevented the sales of their assets.
          Really anyone with money could have stopped them.

          • They were dumping to drive other mines out of business, then they imposed artificial scarcity to drive the price up and increase their profits. It's a very old scam and most countries have laws that, if a company did it, would mean that they got massive fines. When a country does it, you need to wait for the WTO to do it, and then see if you can actually enforce the ruling (which you generally only can against small countries - the US typically just ignores rulings against them, and I presume China does t
          • by EL_mal0 (777947)
            Not really. they priced other operations out of the market, i.e., Mountain Pass with all its costs related to labor and environmental snafus. Now the price is getting back up to where laying out the capital (tens to hundreds of millions of dollars) is again worth looking into.
          • by Immerman (2627577)

            Sure, it depends where you are in the cycle - mining and refining is not a cheap endeavor, there are considerable start-up costs. So a monopolist looking to maximize profits will tend to follow a cycle:

            1. Drop prices to near (or below) cost to drive everyone else out of business. This is especially easy to do if you have the backing of an economic superpower.
            2. Raise prices and reap profit until competition starts to come back
            3. When the competition is nearing the point of entering the market, GOTO 1

            Now I

    • The only hurdle to successfully mining the ocean floor is that James Cameron hasn't decided to do it yet.
  • Politics (Score:3, Insightful)

    by DaMattster (977781) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:48AM (#42544047)
    It's about high time that we have bipartisan support for energy independence. It's time for both political parties to pull their thumbs out of their collective arses and get it done!
    • Re:Politics (Score:4, Interesting)

      by ShanghaiBill (739463) * on Thursday January 10, 2013 @06:57AM (#42544083)

      It's about high time that we have bipartisan support for energy independence. It's time for both political parties to pull their thumbs out of their collective arses and get it done!

      It is being done. The USA is already self-sufficient in natural gas, and falling gas prices are causing gas to displace coal for electricity generation. Fracking technology, developed for gas, is now being applied to oil, with very successful results. By 2020 the USA is expected to surpass Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer in the world. All of this is because US politicians have done something that they have so often failed to do in the past: stay out of the way.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Biggest oil (or even energy) producer != Energy independence

        We are so wasteful and inefficient that being #1 doesn't solve our problem since we're at or near #1 in consumption, waste and any other category you can think of.

        • by tmosley (996283)
          Yes, those two aren't equal. That doesn't mean that we aren't going to be both things, however.

          Of course, one of the easier ways to solve the Rar Earth Shortage would be to develop thorium technology. Not only would it provide the energy needed to mine and process the metals, it would create a use for what is currently a big stumbling block to rare earth production--contamination with thorium, which is mostly just a costly contaminant with few uses.
      • Re:Politics (Score:5, Interesting)

        by turp182 (1020263) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @08:51AM (#42544479) Journal

        I agree on all points but that of oil. Fracking depends on high oil prices, otherwise it isn't economically viable (don't expect the price of gas or oil to come down). As well, those fracked wells show much faster production declines than traditional oil wells, on an individual basis they decline pretty fast. Environmental concerns are also pretty big, may as well be mining rare earths...

        For more info regarding fracking and the "more oil than Saudi Arabia" propaganda (at best that's what it is, at worst it is completely uninformed...), this article goes over the basics:
        http://www.theoildrum.com/node/9753 [theoildrum.com]

        The Oil Drum has many other more detailed articles as well.

        • by tmosley (996283)
          FYI, the Oil Drum is full of Malthusian fools who have done nothing but cry "PEAK OIL!" since day one.
          • by turp182 (1020263)

            It's actually mostly science these days. Check out the headlines on the front page. There are several energy experts and drilling specialists (who are in the know with regards to old technology like fracking, it's been around for decades by the way) on the site. The Drumbeats can be "Malthusian" as you say, but they are supposed to be open forum discussions (good info on LED lights, insulation, you name it).

            And they don't cry "PEAK OIL" anymore. They mostly point out that energy prices cannot decline as

        • The price of oil may not come down, but without the oil from frakking it would have gone through the roof in fairly short order.

          • by turp182 (1020263)

            I agree, but why would it have gone through the roof?

            I would posit that it would due to conventional oil production is in a state of decline or at best level outputs. Discoveries and new fields aren't covering the depletion gap, they haven't for some time. Here's a graph of discoveries versus production:

            http://www.forbes.com/pictures/efee45fmdh/oil-production-v-oil-discovery-2/ [forbes.com]

            Saudi Arabia claims to have a bunch of excess production (over the OPEC quotas). They have stated publicly that they want $100 pe

  • What? It's less idiotic than some things American politicians do.

  • by mov_eax_eax (906912) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:00AM (#42544089)

    today works like this: bribe local authoritites and enslave miners in third world countries while destroying the environment, then let criminal organizations export them back to the us, like the blood diamonds; there is a huge black market out there.

    Well funded R&D can bring us amazing advancements, I only hope this project succeeds and stops the illegal mining and the black market in the same vein of the synthetic latex.

  • by flightmaker (1844046) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:03AM (#42544101)
    According to an article in Popular Mechanics (page 60, January 2013 issue) a company called Molycorp is running a re-opened rare earth mine in the Mojave Desert, forecasting "By mid 2013 the mine will have the capacity to produce 40,000 metric tons anually".
    • But for how many years?

      Since it's a mine there has to be a finite amount. What happens when THAT runs out?

      • But for how many years?

        Since it's a mine there has to be a finite amount. What happens when THAT runs out?

        Oil and coal are biological in origin, and thus only located close to the surface, and can be "used up". But rare earths, and other non-biological ores, are not "used up" in the same way, because you can always just dig deeper. The cost may go up, but there is no reason to believe we will ever run out of ore.

        • But for how many years?

          Since it's a mine there has to be a finite amount. What happens when THAT runs out?

          Oil and coal are biological in origin, and thus only located close to the surface, and can be "used up". But rare earths, and other non-biological ores, are not "used up" in the same way, because you can always just dig deeper. The cost may go up, but there is no reason to believe we will ever run out of ore.

          Are you sure you don't have that backwards?

          Biological means that, EVENTUALLY, it's renewable. Even if it means waiting hundreds of years, thousands, or even millions... eventually biological processes will create more. Dead carbon becoming coal, oil, whatever.

          WITHOUT RECYCLING... digging up non-biological ores means you'd eventually run out. Sure, the amount of MetalX is probably great enough that if you knew where to dig it would take many many lifetimes to use up. But eventually, you WOULD use it up.

          A

      • by tmosley (996283)
        Rare earths aren't actually rare. It will be a few thousand years before we run out, and recycling will come into play a long time before that.
        • by EL_mal0 (777947)
          It's true that rare earths aren't rare, geologically speaking. But big deposits that have the mineralogy to give them high concentrations amenable to processing are quite rare. They're out there, but they're not common. And China can extract and process them for a lot less than we can here in the rest of the world.
    • by jgtg32a (1173373)
      Hopefully that will help their stock price out.

      I went full retard on that stock a while back.
      • by gr8_phk (621180)
        Yeah, I'm starting to think they're a pump-n-dump stock. They keep talking about the price of rare earths and how they have this mine, and how they just need to clear some government hurdle... It's always right around the corner. Dude, it's their own fucking mine, just ramp production back up and show me the money. They need to stop talking about it and start producing. Been a few years now.
        • by EL_mal0 (777947)

          You're blissfully unaware of the regulations involved in getting a mine up and running. Especially in California. It takes years to get through permitting. And Molycorp's environmental record is far from pristine, which throws more regulatory junk in their way. link [wikipedia.org]. I work in mining, and for an expansion of a mine I worked at that was 100% on private property, there were something like 30 permits, each with its own lengthy process, that we needed to clear before going forward. And that was in a state far m

    • by TubeSteak (669689)

      Funny that this just passed across my desk earlier today:

      Molycorp Plummets on JP Morgan Price Target Cut [benzinga.com]

      JP Morgan cited lower volumes and a recent rare earth price collapse as the key drivers behind their price target cut. Specifically, JP Morgan writes, âoeWe continue to believe MCP will likely have to seek additional capital beyond just a revolver and/or equipment leaseback.â

      Until Thursday, Molycorp had been having a solid week. Shares rallied over 12 percent on Monday after the Chinese government cut its production quotas for rare earth metals.

      In 2011 Molycorp stock was $75.
      Today their stock is around $8.

  • by MACC (21597) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:03AM (#42544103)

    The US has sufficient resources.
    see:
            http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/rare_earths/mcs-2012-raree.pdf [usgs.gov]

    Political interest actually is about getting _cheap_ access to china's resources.

    • by Luckyo (1726890) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:11AM (#42544121)

      Political interest is also about not having to restart highly toxic rare earth mining at home with all the consequences that it brings.

      • by MACC (21597)

        Political interest is also about not having to restart highly toxic rare earth mining at home with all the consequences that it brings.

        But China should bear the consequences without compensation or limitation?
        The US has ofloaded/ofshored significant elements of it's Carbon Footprint to China already.
         

        • Carbon footprint is one thing, and that has global consequences. But the bigger toxicity of heavy metal mines and refining is from the *material itself*, and that contamination is more local. That is, if it's made in China, it stays (more) in China.
  • It's true the Earth is very rare, but only because it keeps getting destroyed, thus the new Young Earth is always a little under-done -- Nothing a bit of Global Warming won't fix... Where was I? Oh, Shortage, right: The answer is quite simple, grant human rights to the Dolphins and ask them if they'll build you another one! Then you just have to make a formal complaint to the intergalactic zoning commission to prevent the hyperspace expressway before the Vogons get here... Blam! Just doubled your natur

  • by Sait-kun (922599) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @07:55AM (#42544251)

    Instead of finding even more ways to strip the earth of all useful materials they should be investing in recycling used materials.

    There are literally millions if not billions (in both weight/tons and in value) of rare earth materials in thrown away products around the world.

    They should be investing in developing technologies to recycle old products and re-use as many of the materials as possible and not just the rare ones either as materials that are a plenty now will become rare if we continue to use and throw them away.

    • Your cognitive dissonance is staggering. If we can reclaim rare earths through recycling (which is true), it really doesn't matter if we "run out" of initial extraction possibilities (which is nowhere even near the horizon). Reclamation can happen at any time, and it will happen precisely when all things happen, when it makes more logistical sense to reclaim than extract.
    • by ledow (319597)

      Good luck trawling through a motherboard (even a pristine, fully-working, but obsolete motherboard handed to you for nothing) and finding the rare-earths and extracting them back to a form, purity and volume that suppliers would take them from you to put back into products.

      You're literally assuming that it's like gold, or iron - just melt it down, scrape off the top and sell what's left. What if those rare-earths are modified to be part of a compound, fine nanostructure, device, etc.? It would literally t

    • by tmosley (996283)
      You think recycling is free? You think recycling doesn't pollute?

      Might want to think a bit on that.
  • How dare China play games with its own resources? And to the detriment of 'merica! Bad yellow peril! What a horrible, US-centric article!
  • They're NOT RARE (Score:5, Informative)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @08:36AM (#42544395) Journal

    From TFA:
    "...CMI specifically plans to organize its efforts in four mutually supporting focus areas:
    Diversify Supply
    Develop Substitutes
    Improve Reuse and Recycling
    Conduct Crosscutting Research ..."

    Correct me if I'm wrong, but Rare Earths aren't really rare in the sense of scarcity - they're about as common as lead or tin. They're "rare" in the sense that they're not found in veins or nuggets, they're found only by processing large quantities of materials (a usually complicated and toxic process that the US has largely farmed out to China because China's far more tolerant of environmental pollution). the article asserts that China controls 95% of the supplies of rare earths - I presume this means they currently produce 95% of the world's production, NOT that they sit on 95% of the world's reserves; two entirely different situations.

    So aside from perhaps the first subject peripherally, as far as I can tell none of these points tries to substantively address that MAIN barrier to our 'supply' of "rare earths": regulatory reform to allow US firms to compete economically and viably with Chinese rare earth recovery companies. There must be an economic motivation if so many countries are nervous about China's lock on the processing capability, certainly?

  • If these minerals are so vital to the nation (and possibly even important to national security because of their uses in military technology etc) just offer whatever subsidies are necessary to make it viable for mining companies to mine and process the deposits that the US has on its own soil.

    You could also introduce tariffs on the import of minerals from foreign countries.

    There is precedent here, the US does exactly this (subsidize domestic production, tax foreign imports) for a number of agricultural commo

  • by Muad'Dave (255648) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @08:51AM (#42544481) Homepage

    Simple, non-technical solution: Refuse to rely on a foreign source for materials deemed critical to the nation. Maintain your own production capability even when buying a cheaper foreign product (and stockpile if you must), but don't let your domestic production capability falter.

  • by Tangential (266113) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @08:57AM (#42544505) Homepage
    Seems like step number one is to stop sending anything with rare earths to Asia to be recycled.

    Step 2 would be to try and attract foreign components containing rare earths here to be recycled. If its that important bite the bullet on not-cheap labor and other environmental issues (and develop better processes for doing it.)

    At the same time of course, turn the geologists loose to find more.
  • The older I get, the harder it gets to fight off becoming a cynical old coot. I have wondered why the USA is militarily involved in a country like Afghanistan. On the surface it does not appear to have anything in the national interest. Sure there were some terrorist training camps there. From the sparse media coverage of this war, the country appears to be run by 7th century goat herders. The drone war has been flattening those bases and the bad guys over there for a while though. What has been peculiar i

    • by tibman (623933)

      I think the idea behind surveying Afghanistan was to find their citizens another way to make money. Growing drugs seems to be a dangerous way of life. I'm sure some American companies would love to move in and start mining, but that's not likely to happen.

  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @09:48AM (#42544895)
    Just reopen the mines that were deemed unprofitable when China still flooded the market with "dirt cheap" rare earth metals.

    Really. There's no actual shortage of the stuff. There's just a shortage of mines that produce them cheaper than China did back then. Market prices rise? Well, I guess those old unused mines might become profitable again.

  • So, here's the conversation between President Obama and the Chinese Prime Minister....

    Obama: What happened to the rare earths?
    CPM: Who run Bartertown?
    Obama: We don't have time to play this game. Turn up the rare earths.
    CPM: WHO RUN BARTERTOWN.
    Obama: I'm not playing this.
    CPM: Embargo. Embargo!
    Obama: (heavy sigh)... Ok ok... Master Blaster run Bartertown.
    CPM; Embargo.... Lifted!

  • Here is a thought (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dcnjoe60 (682885) on Thursday January 10, 2013 @10:46AM (#42545571)

    Here is a thought. The US is a capitalistic society. Why is the government funding this? If there is a resource shortage, isn't the private sector the solution? Or is it that the private sector is only the solution once all the hard stuff has been paid for by the taxpayer?

  • Since 1967, I have recycled what I could (cans, bottles, paper, and these days plastics).
    However, I found out that Waste Management (WM) sends our recycled goods to China. That is JUST INSANE to buy goods from there and then send it back to there. This has multiple issues. Basically, China requires the ships to return full. They can either send back resources, or manufactured goods. At this time, they can send back resources because we are foolish enough to do so. However, if we stockpile the items, at som
  • For $120M, can you find some way to stop meth addicts from sawing off catalytic converters and selling them for cash to scrap dealers? Who will turn around and ship them overseas where the rare metals are recovered?

  • here [bloomberg.com] are the "games" china is playing. same "games" youll see with the diamond and oil industries, as well as canadian logging and even the US mint for coin collectors, but in this case we give a shit because, well, scary evil china.
  • well we could use more rare earth on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3Z8NU5ImK0 [youtube.com]

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