Natural bitumen from the Dead sea
refined bitumen
The University of Queensland Pitch drop experiment, demonstrating the viscosity of bitumen.

Asphalt /ˈæsfɔːlt/ ( listen) also known as bitumen is a sticky, black and highly viscous liquid or semi-solid that is present in most crude petroleums and in some natural deposits, it is a substance classed as a pitch. Until the 20th century, the term asphaltum was also used.[1]

The primary use of asphalt is in road construction, where it is used as the glue or binder mixed with aggregate particles to create asphalt concrete. Its other main uses are for bituminous waterproofing products, including production of roofing felt and for sealing flat roofs.

The terms asphalt and bitumen are often used interchangeably to mean both natural and manufactured forms of the substance. In American English, asphalt (or asphalt cement) is the carefully refined residue from the distillation process of selected crude oils. Outside the United States, the product is often called bitumen. Natural deposits terminology also sometimes uses the word bitumen, such as at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Naturally occurring asphalt is sometimes specified by the term "crude Bitumen"; its viscosity is similar to that of cold molasses.[2][3] whilst the material obtained from the fractional distillation of crude oil (boiling at 525 °C (977 °F)) is sometimes referred to as "refined bitumen".



The word asphalt is derived from the late Middle English, in turn from French asphalte, based on Late Latin asphalton, asphaltum, which is the latinisation of the Greek ἄσφαλτος (ásphaltos, ásphalton), a word meaning "asphalt/bitumen/pitch" which some derive from α- "without" and σφάλλω, (sfallō), "to make fall".[4] Note that in French, the term asphalte is used for naturally occurring bitumen-soaked limestone deposits, and for specialised manufactured products with fewer voids or greater bitumen content than the "asphaltic concrete" used to pave roads. Another description has it that the term derives from the Accadian term asphaltu or sphallo, meaning "to split". It was later adopted from the Homeric Greeks as a verb meaning "to make firm or stable", "to secure".[citation needed] It is a significant fact that the first use of asphalt by the ancients was in the nature of a cement for securing or joining together various objects, and it thus seems likely that the name itself was expressive of this application. From the Greek, the word passed into late Latin, and thence into French ("asphalte") and English ("asphaltum" and "asphalt").

The expression "bitumen" originated in the Sanskrit, where we find the words "jatu", meaning "pitch," and "jatu-krit", meaning "pitch creating", "pitch producing" (referring to coniferous or resinous trees). The Latin equivalent is claimed by some to be originally 'gwitu-men' (pertaining to pitch), and by others, "pixtumens" (exuding or bubbling pitch), which was subsequently shortened to "bitumen," thence passing via French into English. From the same root is derived the Anglo Saxon word "cwidu" (Mastix), the German word "Kitt" (cement or mastic) and the old Norse word "kvada".[5]

Neither of the terms Asphalt or Bitumen should be confused with tar or coal tars.

Modern usage

A tanker with the name Bitumina.

In British English, the word 'asphalt' is used to refer to a mixture of mineral aggregate and bitumen (or tarmac in common parlance). The earlier word 'asphaltum' is now archaic and not commonly used. In American English, 'asphalt' is equivalent to the British 'bitumen'. However, 'asphalt' is also commonly used as a shortened form of 'asphalt concrete' (therefore equivalent to the British 'asphalt' or 'tarmac'). In Australian English, bitumen is sometimes used as the generic term for road surfaces. In Canadian English, the word bitumen is used to refer to the vast Canadian deposits of extremely heavy crude oil,[6] while asphalt is used for the oil refinery product used to pave roads and manufacture roof shingles and various waterproofing products. Diluted bitumen (diluted with naphtha to make it flow in pipelines) is known as dilbit in the Canadian petroleum industry, while bitumen "upgraded" to synthetic crude oil is known as syncrude and syncrude blended with bitumen as synbit.[7]

Bitumen is still the preferred geological term for naturally occurring deposits of the solid or semi-solid form of petroleum. Bituminous rock is a form of sandstone impregnated with bitumen. The oil sands of Alberta, Canada are a similar material.

Bitumen is sometimes incorrectly called "tar" (tar is a black viscous material obtained from the destructive distillation of coal and is chemically distinct from bitumen).


The substance is completely soluble in carbon disulfide, and composed primarily of a mixture of highly condensed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; it is most commonly modelled as a colloid, with asphaltenes as the dispersed phase and maltenes as the continuous phase (though there is some disagreement amongst chemists regarding its structure).[citation needed] One writer states that although a "considerable amount of work has been done on the composition of asphalt, it is exceedingly difficult to separate individual hydrocarbon in pure form",[8] and "it is almost impossible to separate and identify all the different molecules of asphalt, because the number of molecules with different chemical structure is extremely large".[9]

Most natural bitumens contain sulfur and several heavy metals such as nickel, vanadium, lead, chromium, mercury and also arsenic, selenium, and other toxic elements.[citation needed] Bitumens can provide good preservation of plants and animal fossils.


Asphalt or bitumen can sometimes be confused with tar, which is a similar black thermo-plastic material produced by the destructive distillation of coal. During the early- and mid-20th century when town gas was produced, tar was a readily available product and extensively used as the binder for road aggregates. The addition of tar to macadam roads led to the word tarmac, which is now used in common parlance to refer to road making materials. However, since the 1970s, when natural gas succeeded town gas, asphalt (bitumen) has completely overtaken the use of tar in these applications. Other examples of this confusion include the La Brea Tar Pits and the Canadian Tar Sands. Pitch is another term mistakenly used at times to refer to asphalt/bitumen, as in Pitch Lake.

Natural deposits of asphalt include lake asphalts (primarily from the Pitch Lake in Trinidad and Tobago and Lake Bermudez in Venezuela), Gilsonite, the Dead Sea, bituminous rock and Tar Sands. Asphalt was mined at Ritchie Mines in Macfarlan in Ritchie County, West Virginia in the United States from 1852 to 1873. Bituminous rock was mined at many locations in the United States for use as a paving material, primarily during the late 1800s.

Asphalt can be separated from the other components in crude oil (such as naphtha, gasoline and diesel) by the process of fractional distillation, usually under vacuum conditions. A better separation can be achieved by further processing of the heavier fractions of the crude oil in a de-asphalting unit, which uses either propane or butane in a supercritical phase to dissolve the lighter molecules which are then separated. Further processing is possible by "blowing" the product: namely reacting it with oxygen. This makes the product harder and more viscous.

Asphalt is typically stored and transported at temperatures around 150 degrees Celsius (300 °F). Sometimes diesel oil or kerosene are mixed in before shipping to retain liquidity; upon delivery, these lighter materials are separated out of the mixture. This mixture is often called "bitumen feedstock", or BFS. Some dump trucks route the hot engine exhaust through pipes in the dump body to keep the material warm. The backs of tippers carrying asphalt, as well as some handling equipment, are also commonly sprayed with a releasing agent before filling to aid release. Diesel oil is sometimes used as a release agent, although it can mix with and thereby reduce the quality of the asphalt.


Geological origin

Bituminous outcrop of the Puy de la Poix, Clermont-Ferrand, France

Naturally occurring deposits of bitumen are formed from the remains of ancient, microscopic algae and other once-living things. When these organisms died, their remains were deposited in the mud on the bottom of the ocean or lake where they lived. Under the heat and pressure of burial deep in the earth, the remains were transformed into materials such as bitumen, kerogen, or petroleum. Deposits at the La Brea Tar Pits are an example.

There are structural similarities between bitumens and the organic matter in carbonaceous meteorites.[10] However, detailed studies have shown these materials to be distinct.[11]

Ancient times

The use of bitumen for waterproofing and as an adhesive dates at least to the third millennium BCE in the early Indus community of Mehrgarh where it was used to line the baskets in which they gathered crops.[12]

In the ancient Middle East, the Sumerians used natural asphalt deposits for mortar between bricks and stones, to cement parts of carvings, such as eyes, into place, for ship caulking, and for waterproofing.[1] In some versions of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the name of the substance used to bind the bricks of the Tower of Babel is translated as bitumen (see Gen 11:3). A one-kilometre tunnel beneath the river Euphrates at Babylon in the time of Queen Semiramis (ca. 800 B.C.) was reportedly constructed of burnt bricks covered with bitumen as a waterproofing agent.[13] This must be regarded as legendary but indicative that the concept was known. The Persian word for asphalt is moom, which is related to the English word mummy. Asphalt was also used by ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies.[1][14] The Greek historian Herodotus said hot bitumen was used as mortar in the walls of Babylon.[15]

In the ancient Far East, natural asphalt was slowly boiled to get rid of the higher fractions, leaving a material of higher molecular weight which is thermoplastic and when layered on objects, became quite hard upon cooling. This was used to cover objects that needed waterproofing,[1] such as scabbards and other items. Statuettes of household deities were also cast with this type of material in Japan, and probably also in China.[citation needed]

In North America, archaeological recovery has indicated that asphalt was sometimes used to adhere stone projectile points to a wooden shaft.[16]

Approximately 40 A.D. Dioscorides described production of asphaltos (as distinguished from pissasphalt and naphtha): (1655 Goodyer translation). The 'Judaicum Bitumen' is a famous deposit of native asphalt seeping through diapirs at the bottom of the Dead Sea, which comes occasionally to the surface through seismic activity in blocks of up to 100 tons in weight which are more than 99.99% pure. It was the object of the first known battle for a hydrocarbon deposit, between the Seleucids and the Nabateans in 312 B.C.[17]

"The Judaicum Bitumen is better than others; that is reckoned the best, which doth shine like purple, being of a strong scent & weightie, but the black and fowle is naught for it is adulterated with Pitch mixed with it. It growes in Phoenice also, and in Sidon, & in Babylon, & in Zacynthum. It is found also moyst swimming upon wells in the countrie of the Agrigentines of Sicilie, which they use for lamps instead of oyle, and which they call falsely Sicilian oyle, for it is a kinde of moyst Bitumen."[18]

The Sidon bitumen is thought to refer to bitumen found at Hasbeya.[19] Pliny refers also to bitumen being found in Epirus.

Early use in Europe

An 1838 edition of Mechanics Magazine cites an early use of asphalt in France. A pamphlet dated 1621, by "a certain Monsieur d'Eyrinys, states that he had discovered the existence (of asphaltum) in large quantities in the vicinity of Neufchatel", and that he proposed to use it in a variety of ways - "principally in the construction of air-proof granaries, and in protecting, by means of the arches, the water-courses in the city of Paris from the intrusin of dirt and filth", which at that time made the water unusable. "He expatiates also on the excellence of this material for forming level and durable terraces" in palaces, "the notion of forming such terraces in the streets not one likely to cross the brain of a Parisian of that generation".[20] But it was generally neglected in France until the revolution of 1830. Then, in the 1830s, there was a surge of interest, and asphalt became widely used "for pavements, flat roofs, and the lining of cisterns, and in England, some use of it had been made of it for similar purposes". Its rise in Europe was "a sudden phenomenon", after natural deposits were found "in France at Osbann (BasRhin), the Parc (l'Ain) and the Puy-de-la-Poix (Puy-de-Dome)", although it could also be made artificially.[21] One of the earliest uses in France was the laying of about 24,000 square yards of Seyssel asphalt at the Place de la Concorde in 1835.[22]

Photography and art

Bitumen was also used in early photographic technology. It was most notably used by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the first picture ever taken. The bitumen used in his experiments were smeared on pewter plates and then exposed to light, thus making a black and white image. It was similarly used to print millions of photochrom postcards.

Bitumen was the nemesis of many artists during the 19th century. Although widely used for a time, it ultimately proved unstable for use in oil painting, especially when mixed with the most common dilutents, such as linseed oil, varnish and turpentine. Unless thoroughly diluted, bitumen never fully solidifies and will in time corrupt the other pigments with which it comes into contact. The use of bitumen as a glaze to set in shadow or mixed with other colors to render a darker tone resulted in the eventual deterioration of a good many paintings, those of Delacroix being just one notable example.

Early use in the United Kingdom

Among the earlier uses of asphalt in the United Kingdom, was for etching. William Salmon's Polygraphice (1673) provides a recipe for varnish used in etching, consisting of three ounces of virgin wax, two ounces of mastic, and one ounce of asphaltum.[23] By the fifth edition in 1685, he had included more asphaltum recipes from other sources.[24]

The first British patent for the use of asphalt was 'Cassell's patent asphalte or bitumen' in 1834.[21] Then on 25 November 1837, Richard Tappin Claridge patented the use of Seyssel asphalt (patent #7849), for use in asphalte pavement,[25][26] having seen it employed in France and Belgium when visiting with Frederick Walter Simms, who worked with him on the introduction of asphalt to Britain.[27][28] Dr T. Lamb Phipson claims that his father, Samuel Ryland Phipson, a friend of Claridge, was also "instrumental in introducing the asphalte pavement (in 1836)".[29] Indeed, mastic pavements had been previously employed at Vauxhall by a competitor of Claridge, but without success.[22]

In 1838, Claridge obtained patents in Scotland on 27 March, and Ireland on 23 April, and in 1851 extensions were sought for all three patents, by the trustees of a company previously formed by Claridge.[21][30][31][32] This was Claridge's Patent Asphalte Company, formed in 1838 for the purpose of introducing to Britain "Asphalte in its natural state from the mine at Pyrimont Seysell in France",[33] and "laid one of the first asphalt pavements in Whitehall".[34] Trials were made of the pavement in 1838 on the footway in Whitehall, the stable at Knightsbridge Barracks,[33][35] "and subsequently on the space at the bottom of the steps leading from Waterloo Place to St. James Park".[35] "The formation in 1838 of Claridge's Patent Asphalte Company (with a distinguished list of aristocratic patrons, and Marc and Isambard Brunel as, respectively, a trustee and consulting engineer), gave an enormous impetus to the development of a British asphalt industry".[31] "By the end of 1838, at least two other companies, Robinson's and the Bastenne company, were in production",[36] with asphalt being laid as paving at Brighton, Herne Bay, Canterbury, Kensington, the Strand, and a large floor area in Bunhill-row, while meantime Claridge's Whitehall paving "continue(d) in good order".[37]

Indeed in 1838, there was a flurry of entrepreneurial activity over asphalt, which had uses beyond paving. For example, asphalt could also used for flooring, damp proofing in buildings, and for waterproofing of various types of pools and baths, with these latter themselves proliferating in the 19th century.[1][21][38] On the London stockmarket, there were various claims as to the exclusivity of asphalt quality from France, Germany and England. And numerous patents were granted in France, with similar numbers of patent applications being denied in England due to their similarity to each other. In England, "Claridge's was the type most used in the 1840s and 50s" [36]

In 1914, Claridge's Company entered into a joint venture to produce tar-bound macadam,[39] with materials manufactured through a subsidiary company called Clarmac Roads Ltd.[40] Two products resulted, namely Clarmac, and Clarphalte, with the former being manufactured by Clarmac Roads and the latter by Claridge's Patent Asphalte Co., although Clarmac was more widely used.[41][note 1] However, the First World War impacted financially on the Clarmac Company, which entered into liquidation in 1915.[43][44] The failure of Clarmac Roads Ltd had a flow-on effect to Claridge's Company, which was itself compulsorily wound up,[45] ceasing operations in 1917,[46][47] having invested a substantial amount of funds into the new venture, both at the outset,[45] and in a subsequent attempt to save the Clarmac Company.[43]

Early use in the United States

The first use of asphaltum in the New World was by indigenous peoples. On the west coast, as early as the 13th century, the Tongva, Luiseño and Chumash peoples collected the naturally occurring asphaltum that seeped to the surface above underlying petroleum deposits. All three used the substance as an adhesive. It is found on many different artifacts of tools and ceremonial items. For example, it was used on rattles to adhere gourds or turtle shells to rattle handles. It was also used in decorations. Small round shell beads were often set in asphaltum to provide decorations. It was used as a sealant on baskets to make them water tight for carrying water. Asphaltum was used also to seal the planks on ocean-going canoes.

Roads in the US have been paved with asphalt since at least 1870, when a street in front of Newark, NJ's City Hall was paved. In 1876, asphalt was used to pave Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, in time for the celebration of the national centennial.[48] Asphalt was also used for flooring, paving and waterproofing of baths and swimming pools during the early 20th century, following similar trends in Europe.[38]

Modern use

Rolled asphalt concrete

The largest use of asphalt is for making asphalt concrete for road surfaces and accounts for approximately 85% of the asphalt consumed in the United States. Asphalt pavement material is commonly composed of 5 percent asphalt cement and 95 percent aggregates (stone, sand, and gravel). Due to its highly viscous nature, asphalt cement must be heated so that it can be mixed with the aggregates at the asphalt mixing plant. There are about 4,000 asphalt mixing plants in the U.S.

Asphalt road surface is the most widely recycled material in the US, both by gross tonnage and by percentage. According to a report issued by the Federal Highway Administration and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 80% of the asphalt removed each year from road surfaces during widening and resurfacing projects is reused as part of new roads, roadbeds, shoulders and embankments.

Roofing shingles account for most of the remaining asphalt consumption. Other uses include cattle sprays, fence post treatments, and waterproofing for fabrics.

Asphalt is widely used in airports around the world. Due to the sturdiness, it is widely used for runways dedicated to aircraft landing and taking off.

Mastic asphalt

Mastic asphalt is a type of asphalt which differs from dense graded asphalt (asphalt concrete) in that it has a higher bitumen (binder) content, usually around 7–10% of the whole aggregate mix, as opposed to rolled asphalt, which has only around 5% added bitumen. This thermoplastic substance is widely used in the building industry for waterproofing flat roofs and tanking underground. Mastic asphalt is heated to a temperature of 210 °C (410 °F) and is spread in layers to form an impervious barrier about 20 millimeters (0.79 in) thick.

Asphalt emulsion

A number of technologies allow asphalt to be mixed at much lower temperatures. These involve mixing the asphalt with petroleum solvents to form "cutbacks" with reduced melting point or mixtures with water to turn the asphalt into an emulsion. Asphalt emulsions contain up to 70% asphalt and typically less than 1.5% chemical additives. There are two main types of emulsions with different affinity for aggregates, cationic and anionic. Asphalt emulsions are used in a wide variety of applications. Chipseal involves spraying the road surface with asphalt emulsion followed by a layer of crushed rock, gravel or crushed slag. Slurry Seal involves the creation of a mixture of asphalt emulsion and fine crushed aggregate that is spread on the surface of a road. Cold mixed asphalt can also be made from asphalt emulsion to create pavements similar to hot-mixed asphalt, several inches in depth and asphalt emulsions are also blended into recycled hot-mix asphalt to create low cost pavements.

Other uses

Thin bitumen plates are sometimes used by computer enthusiasts for silencing computer cases or noisy computer parts such as the hard drive.[citation needed] Bitumen layers are baked onto the outside of high end dishwashers to provide sound insulation.[citation needed] Bitumen also is used in paint and marker inks by some graffiti supply companies (primarily Molotow) to increase the weather resistance and permanence of the paint and/or ink, and to make the color much darker.[citation needed]

Petroleum production, alternatives and bioasphalt

Naturally occurring crude bitumen impregnated in sedimentary rock is the prime feed stock for petroleum production from "tar sands", currently under development in Alberta, Canada. Canada has most of the world's supply of natural bitumen, covering 140,000 square kilometres[6] (an area larger than England), giving it the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. The Athabasca tar sands is the largest bitumen deposit in Canada and the only one accessible to surface mining, although recent technological breakthroughs have resulted in deeper deposits becoming producible by in-situ methods. Because of oil price increases since 2003, upgrading bitumen to synthetic crude oil has become highly profitable. As of 2006 Canadian crude bitumen production averaged about 1.1 million barrels (170,000 m3) per day and was projected to rise to 4.4 million barrels (700,000 m3) per day by 2020.[7] The total amount of crude bitumen in Alberta which could be extracted is estimated to be about 310 billion barrels (50×10^9 m3),[49] which at a rate of 4,400,000 barrels per day (700,000 m3/d) would last about 200 years.

Certain activist groups have become increasingly concerned about the global peak oil and climate change problem in recent years due to by-products that are released into the atmosphere. Most of the emissions are derived primarily from burning fossil fuels. This has led to the introduction of petroleum alternatives such as bioasphalt that are more environmentally friendly and less toxic.

Bitumen can now be made from non-petroleum based renewable resources such as sugar, molasses and rice, corn and potato starches. Bitumen can also be made from waste material by fractional distillation of used motor oils, which is sometimes disposed by burning or dumping into land fills. Non-petroleum based bitumen binders can be made light-colored. Roads made with lighter-colored pitch absorb less heat from solar radiation, and become less hot than darker surfaces, reducing their contribution to the urban heat island effect.[50]

See also


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  2. ^ "Oil Sands - Glossary". Oil Sands Royalty Guidelines. Government of Alberta. 2008. Archived from the original on 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2008-02-02. 
  3. ^ Walker, Ian C. (1998) (pdf), Marketing Challenges for Canadian Bitumen, Tulsa, OK: International Centre for Heavy Hydrocarbons,, "Bitumen has been defined by various sources as crude oil with a dynamic viscosity at reservoir conditions of more than 10,000 centipoise. Canadian “bitumen” supply is more loosely accepted as production from the Athabasca, Wabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake oil-sands deposits. The majority of the oil produced from these deposits has an API gravity of between 8° and 12° and a reservoir viscosity of over 10,000 centipoise although small volumes have higher API gravities and lower viscosities." 
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  9. ^ Muhammad Abdul Quddus (1992), p.99, in ch.5 pdf
  10. ^ Hayatsu etal., Meteoritics, Vol. 18, p.310
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  12. ^ McIntosh, Jane. The Ancient Indus Valley. p. 57
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  14. ^ Pringle, Heather Anne (2001). The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble Books. pp. 196–197. ISBN 0-7607-7151-0. 
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  16. ^ C.Michael Hogan (2008) Morro Creek, ed. by A. Burnham
  17. ^ Arie Nissenbaum (1978-05). "Dead Sea Asphalts--Historical Aspects [free abstract"]. AAPG Bulletin 62 (5): 837–844. 
  18. ^ Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. 40 A.D.). De Materia Medica.  translated by Goodyer (1655) [1] or (Greek/Latin) compiled by Sprengel (1829) [2] p. 100 (p. 145 in PDF)
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  34. ^ Miles, Lewis (2000), pp.10.06.1-2
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  45. ^ a b Claridge's Patent Asphalte Co. compulsorily wound up Funds invested in new company The Law Times Reports (1921) Vol.125, p.256. Retrieved 15 June 2010.
  46. ^ "Claridge's Patent Asphalte Co. winds up 10 November 1917". The London Gazette. 16 November 1917. p. 11863. 
  47. ^ Hobhouse, Hermione (General Editor) (1994). "British History Online". 'Cubitt Town: Riverside area: from Newcastle Drawdock to Cubitt Town Pier', Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs. pp. 528–532 (see text at refs 507 & 510). Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  48. ^ McNichol, Dan (2005). Paving the Way: Asphalt in America. Lanham, MD: National Asphalt Pavement Association. ISBN 0-914313-04-5. 
  49. ^ "ST98-2007: Alberta’s Energy Reserves 2006 and Supply/Demand Outlook" (PDF). Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board. 2007. Retrieved 2008-05-30. 
  50. ^ EPA



  1. ^ The Building News and Engineering Journal contains photographs of the following roads where Clarmac was used, being "some amongst many laid with 'Clarmac'": Scott's Lane, Beckenham; Dorset Street, Marylebone; Lordswood Road, Birmingham; Hearsall Lane, Coventry; Valkyrie Avenue, Westcliff-on-Sea; and Lennard Road, Penge.[42]

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