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    Spanish company Ferry Group is to invest €42/US$55.2 million in a project for the production of biomass fuel pellets in Bulgaria. The 3-year project consists of establishing plantations of paulownia trees near the city of Tran. Paulownia is a fast-growing tree used for the commercial production of fuel pellets. Dnevnik - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Hungary's BHD Hõerõmû Zrt. is to build a 35 billion Forint (€138/US$182 million) commercial biomass-fired power plant with a maximum output of 49.9 MW in Szerencs (northeast Hungary). Portfolio.hu - Feb. 20, 2007.

    Tonight at 9pm, BBC Two will be showing a program on geo-engineering techniques to 'save' the planet from global warming. Five of the world's top scientists propose five radical scientific inventions which could stop climate change dead in its tracks. The ideas include: a giant sunshade in space to filter out the sun's rays and help cool us down; forests of artificial trees that would breath in carbon dioxide and stop the green house effect and a fleet futuristic yachts that will shoot salt water into the clouds thickening them and cooling the planet. BBC News - Feb. 19, 2007.

    Archer Daniels Midland, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, is planning to open a biodiesel plant in Indonesia with Wilmar International Ltd. this year and a wholly owned biodiesel plant in Brazil before July, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday. The Brazil plant is expected to be the nation's largest, the paper said. Worldwide, the company projects a fourfold rise in biodiesel production over the next five years. ADM was not immediately available to comment. Reuters - Feb. 16, 2007.

    Finnish engineering firm Pöyry Oyj has been awarded contracts by San Carlos Bioenergy Inc. to provide services for the first bioethanol plant in the Philippines. The aggregate contract value is EUR 10 million. The plant is to be build in the Province of San Carlos on the north-eastern tip of Negros Island. The plant is expected to deliver 120,000 liters/day of bioethanol and 4 MW of excess power to the grid. Kauppalehti Online - Feb. 15, 2007.

    In order to reduce fuel costs, a Mukono-based flower farm which exports to Europe, is building its own biodiesel plant, based on using Jatropha curcas seeds. It estimates the fuel will cut production costs by up to 20%. New Vision (Kampala, Uganda) - Feb. 12, 2007.

    The Tokyo Metropolitan Government has decided to use 10% biodiesel in its fleet of public buses. The world's largest city is served by the Toei Bus System, which is used by some 570,000 people daily. Digital World Tokyo - Feb. 12, 2007.

    Fearing lack of electricity supply in South Africa and a price tag on CO2, WSP Group SA is investing in a biomass power plant that will replace coal in the Letaba Citrus juicing plant which is located in Tzaneen. Mining Weekly - Feb. 8, 2007.

    In what it calls an important addition to its global R&D capabilities, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is to build a new bioenergy research center in Hamburg, Germany. World Grain - Feb. 5, 2007.

    EthaBlog's Henrique Oliveira interviews leading Brazilian biofuels consultant Marcelo Coelho who offers insights into the (foreign) investment dynamics in the sector, the history of Brazilian ethanol and the relationship between oil price trends and biofuels. EthaBlog - Feb. 2, 2007.

    The government of Taiwan has announced its renewable energy target: 12% of all energy should come from renewables by 2020. The plan is expected to revitalise Taiwan's agricultural sector and to boost its nascent biomass industry. China Post - Feb. 2, 2007.

    Production at Cantarell, the world's second biggest oil field, declined by 500,000 barrels or 25% last year. This virtual collapse is unfolding much faster than projections from Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos. Wall Street Journal - Jan. 30, 2007.

    Dubai-based and AIM listed Teejori Ltd. has entered into an agreement to invest €6 million to acquire a 16.7% interest in Bekon, which developed two proprietary technologies enabling dry-fermentation of biomass. Both technologies allow it to design, establish and operate biogas plants in a highly efficient way. Dry-Fermentation offers significant advantages to the existing widely used wet fermentation process of converting biomass to biogas. Ame Info - Jan. 22, 2007.

    Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Limited is to build a biofuel production plant in the tribal belt of Banswara, Rajasthan, India. The petroleum company has acquired 20,000 hectares of low value land in the district, which it plans to commit to growing jatropha and other biofuel crops. The company's chairman said HPCL was also looking for similar wasteland in the state of Chhattisgarh. Zee News - Jan. 15, 2007.

    The Zimbabwean national police begins planting jatropha for a pilot project that must result in a daily production of 1000 liters of biodiesel. The Herald (Harare), Via AllAfrica - Jan. 12, 2007.

    In order to meet its Kyoto obligations and to cut dependence on oil, Japan has started importing biofuels from Brazil and elsewhere. And even though the country has limited local bioenergy potential, its Agriculture Ministry will begin a search for natural resources, including farm products and their residues, that can be used to make biofuels in Japan. To this end, studies will be conducted at 900 locations nationwide over a three-year period. The Japan Times - Jan. 12, 2007.

    Chrysler's chief economist Van Jolissaint has launched an arrogant attack on "quasi-hysterical Europeans" and their attitudes to global warming, calling the Stern Review 'dubious'. The remarks illustrate the yawning gap between opinions on climate change among Europeans and Americans, but they also strengthen the view that announcements by US car makers and legislators about the development of green vehicles are nothing more than window dressing. Today, the EU announced its comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century, with climate change at the center of it. BBC News - Jan. 10, 2007.

    The new Canadian government is investing $840,000 into BioMatera Inc. a biotech company that develops industrial biopolymers (such as PHA) that have wide-scale applications in the plastics, farmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Plant-based biopolymers such as PHA are biodegradable and renewable. Government of Canada - Jan. 9, 2007.

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The bioeconomy at work: protein fibers from wheat gluten, similar to wool

Researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln's Department of Textiles, Clothing & Design and from its Department of Biological Systems Engineering, have for the first time successfully produced protein fibers from 100% wheat gluten, with mechanical properties similar to those of wool and better than those of soyprotein and zein fibers. Wheat gluten is a low cost, abundantly available, and renewable resource suitable for bio-based fiber production. The green fibers may find applications in the textiles, biomedical and bioplastics industries and replace several categories of petroleum-based synthetic fibers.

Describing their simple production method in Biomacromolecules (open access article), Narendra Reddy and Yiqi Yang write that there is a long history of attempts to make natural cellulose fibers from lignocellulosic agricultural byproducts in an effort to add value to agricultural crops and to make the fiber industry more sustainable in the long run. Already during the 1930s and 1940s, efforts were made to use plant proteins such as soybeans, corn, and peanut and also milk proteins (casein) for fiber production. The higher cost, use of relatively environmentally unfriendly production processes, and inferior properties of the regenerated protein fibers as compared to those of the regenerated cellulose and synthetic fibers led to the abandoning of artificial protein fiber production.

Abundant feedstock, large market
However, the increasing use of cereal grains for biofuels and other industrial applications has led to the abundant availability of zein, soyprotein, and also wheat gluten as byproducts at low prices. Therefore, researchers have more recently attempted to produce fibers from zein, casein, and soyprotein and in addition from the blends of these proteins. Unfortunately, none of these attempts have been commercially successful to produce 100% protein fibers mainly due to the high cost and poor quality of the fibers. Reddy and Yang's wheat gluten fibers have now changed this situation.

Wheat gluten fibers would have a major cost advantage over both wool and silk, the two existing commercial natural protein fibers, according to the researchers. While wool sells for about US$5-8 per pound, and silk for US$10-$14 per pound, wheat gluten fetches less than 50 cents per pound and some 500,000 tons are available worldwide each year. This makes wheat gluten a cheap, abundant, and renewable source for producing protein fibers. In addition, wheat gluten has good stability to water and heat, excellent elasticity, and easy degradability, properties that are desirable for fibers. The annual world fiber market is about 67 million tons including about 2.3 million tons of the two natural protein fibers, wool and silk. Therefore, fibrous applications of the plant based material provide an opportunity for high value addition and offer a new, large market for consumption of wheat gluten:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Although wheat gluten has previously not been used for fiber production, it has been used to produce bioplastics especially as films for food packing, as a binder for textile printing pastes, and as nanofibers via the electro-spinning process. The major limitations of the wheat gluten films are their relatively poor mechanical properties and higher cost as compared to those of the synthetic polymer-based films. Using wheat gluten as a binder is relatively expensive and also has limited market potential. This leaves the use of wheat gluten as a feedstock for biofibers.

The researchers developed a simple production method to obtain high-quality wheat gluten fibers, and the structure and properties of the fibers are promising. Wheat gluten fibers have breaking tenacity of about 115 MPa, breaking elongation of 23%, and a Young's modulus of 5 GPa, similar to those of wool. Wheat gluten fibers have better tensile properties than soyprotein- and casein-based biomaterials. In addition, the wheat gluten fibers have resistance similar to that of PLA (polylactic acid) fibers to water in weak alkaline and slightly lower resistance in weak acidic conditions at high temperatures.

In their paper, the authors discuss the method of producing 100% wheat gluten fibers, the effect of various production variables on the properties of the fibers, and the structure and properties of the fibers developed. The structure and properties of the fibers have been compared to the most common natural protein fiber, wool, and also to protein fibers produced from 100% zein and soyproteins.

They conclude that the protein fibers have mechanical properties similar to those of wool and better than those of 100% soyprotein and zein fibers have been produced successfully. They found that only a narrow range of concentration of wheat gluten, time, and temperature of aging is required to produce good quality fibers, and the properties of the fibers are improved by drawing and annealing. Although the fibers have low % crystallinity and poor orientation as compared to wool, they have good stability to weak acidic and weak alkaline conditions at high temperatures. The increasing availability of wheat gluten at low prices will provide an opportunity to develop cheap and environmentally friendly protein-based bioproducts. Wheat gluten fibers are suitable for biomedical applications because they have better properties than those of soyprotein-, zein-, and casein-based materials.

Image: Dyed Wheat Gluten Fibers, Courtesy of Yiqi Yang, Usage Restrictions: None.

More information:
Narendra Reddy and Yiqi Yang, "Novel Protein Fibers from Wheat Gluten", Biomacromolecules, Web Release Date: January 10, 2007; print release: February, 2007.

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Eyes in the sky: ESA images forests in 3-D to analyse biomass

Nowadays there is a lot of research into analysing the capacity of ecosystems to act as 'carbon sinks' as they offer a potential way to mitigate climate change by storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Producing accurate forest biomass estimates, and how they are changing over time, are a critical challenge to environmental scientists to whom national governments are turning for help in meeting their international obligations to stabilise greenhouse-gas emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

Recent research revealed that not all forest types and not all locations would be suitable for afforestation, reforestation or conservation aimed at soaking up greenhouse gases, as some of the forests are and would be net CO2-contributors. This should make people think more critically about fashionable carbon offset schemes ('plant a tree to reduce your carbon footprint'), as some of these initiatives may actually worsen climate change (earlier post). On the other hand, understanding the amount of carbon forests store allows environmental economists to estimate the true 'ecoservice value' of an ecosystem (earlier post).

The European Space Agency is contributing to this kind of research by developing tools that allow forests to be seen from space in 3-D. It is also training scientists to use the new visualisation technique. 140 scientists and researchers from 22 countries have attended ESA's weeklong POLinSAR 2007 workshop, “Science and Applications of SAR Polarimetry and Polarimetric Interferometry,” hosted at ESRIN, ESA’s Earth Observation centre in Frascati, Italy, to hear the first space borne results and to attend interactive training sessions.

The technique is called 'polarimetric interferometry' and is performed using two polarimetric SAR (synthetic aperture radar) images acquired from slightly different directions. The study of these data sets permits scientists to retrieve information related to the 3-D structure of forest or other natural volume scatterers, such as underlying topography, forest height (image, click to enlarge) and to estimate forest biomass – a quantitative estimate of the entire amount of organic material in a particular forest habitat.
"POLinSAR allows us to estimate key environmental parameters that are needed today. For instance, it allows us to make estimations of forest biomass on a global scale. The conclusions from these global estimates may also be important for climate change modellers and decision makers." -- Konstantinos Papathanassiou, a researcher with the Radar and Microwaves Institute at German Aerospace Centre.
The capability of radar to penetrate ground cover and 'see' the underlying terrain, coupled with POLinSAR techniques to detect forest canopies, make it possible to classify trees and estimate their height using SAR imagery. This may sound of interest only to a narrow band of scientists, until one realizes that determining the types and heights of trees in a forest are critical ingredients in determining its biomass:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

Workshop participants saw the first POLinSAR in-orbit results from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s (JAXA) Advanced Land Observing Satellite (ALOS). Launched on 24 January 2006, ALOS is supported as an ESA Third Party Mission.

Also at the workshop, ESA provided additional interactive training opportunities for the POLSARPRO tool developed by the University of Rennes 1, France, which includes a wide-ranging tutorial in Polarimetry and Polarimetric Interferometry. To date, some 700 registered users from 62 countries worldwide are using the tool.

Over the last 2 years, ESA has trained some 250 scientists to exploit Polarimetric airborne/spaceborne SAR data for science and applications development using in particular the POLSARPRO software and educational tool.

"POLinSAR is the starting point of future applications because we are at the point where new satellites will be launched, such as Germany’s TerraSAR-X and Canada’s Radarsat-2, that can provide polarimetry and interferometry," said Prof. Eric Pottier, head of the Radar Polarimetry Group at the University of Rennes. "Processing this kind of data will open many new application doors, so it is very important to train young students now to be able to handle this kind of data."

Image: ALOS PALSAR first forest height estimates by means of Single-Baseline Polarimetric Interferometry (POLinSAR) at L-Band obtained by German Aerospace Centre (DLR) on the Oberpfaffenhofen test site. The POLinSAR research group at DLR, supported by ESA, is studying the methodology for forest height measurement and validation. Credits: JAXA, ESA, DLR

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US firm Perihelion to use peanuts for biodiesel

In an interesting development, Alabama based firm Perihelion Global held its groundbreaking ceremony for its biodiesel plant which aims to produce 40 million gallons (151 million liters) of biofuel per year using peanuts as a feedstock. The company plans to be the third largest green fuel refinery in North America and the largest using the nuts as its feedstock. If the company succeeds in producing competitive biofuels, it will become a reference case for developing countries that have a large groundnut growing potential.

Peanuts or groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea L.), a nitrogen-fixing legume, are cultivated in over 100 countries in the global south (overview at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics). It is the 13th most important food crop of the world. Today, groundnut is the world's 4th most important source of edible oil and the 3rd most important source of vegetable protein. Groundnut seeds contain high quality oil (50%), easily digestible protein (25%) and carbohydrates (20%).

The nut is currently grown on 26.4 million ha worldwide with a total production of 36.1 million metric tons, and an average productivity of 1.4 metric tons per hectare. Major groundnut producers in the world are: China, India, Nigeria, USA, Indonesia and Sudan. Developing countries account for 96% of the global groundnut area and 92% of the global production.

Let us have a quick overview of countries in the Sahel - the poorest countries on the planet - and how much land is suitable for sustainable groundnut production, to get a rough idea of the technical biofuels potential. As a quick reference, we indicate the country's ranking on the 2006 Human Development Index, to indicate its development status (we assume that large-scale biofuel production has the potential to fuel social and economic development).

Using the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis's GAEZ database on land suitability for rainfed groundnut, the situation looks as follows:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

The data assume high inputs, no irrigation, and a maximized technology mix.

Let us take the United States as a reference case:

:: United States: 23.8 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 1.57 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 8.

The countries of the Sahel:

:: Benin: 9.2 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 2.7 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 163.
:: Burkina Faso: 14.6 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 2 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 174.
:: Chad: 24.6 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 2.1 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 171.
:: Central African Republic: 28.2 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 2 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 172.
:: Mali: 17.5 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 1.8 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 175.
:: Niger: 2.8 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 1 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 177 (last).
:: Senegal: 7.1 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 1.7 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 156.
:: Sudan: 65.2 million hectares of 'very suitable' to 'moderately suitable' land, with an average yield of 2.1 tons/ha. HDI ranking (2006): 141.

Other countries in Africa with a large land base suitable for groundnut production are Mozambique (45 million ha), Tanzania (38 million ha), Zambia (47 million ha) and Angola (48 million ha). This quick overview shows that there is considerable production potential, but doubts remain on the feasibility of using groundnuts for biodiesel production. Currently, groundnut oil is the most expensive of all globally traded vegetable oils.

However, groundnuts have several advantages that, with increased investments, make them suitable for biodiesel production in the future:

Groundnut is an interesting energy crop for several reasons:

* it grows well in semi-arid regions and requires limited fertilizer and water inputs
* therefor it does not cause any pressures on rainforest ecologies, a critique often raised against other tropical energy crops (most notably palm oil)
* the regions where groundnut thrives are populated by the world's poorest people (especially Sahelian countries, like Mali, Niger, Mauritania, Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan -- who all rank at the bottom of the scale of, for example, the Human Development Index)
* many non-commercial and non-edible varieties with high yields can be developed and improved
* In contrast to other energy crops which thrive well in semi-arid regions, such as the perennial shrubs jatropha curcas and pongamia pinnata, groundnut can be harvested mechanically

All of the crop's parts can be used as bioenergy feedstocks:

* the nuts themselves have a high oil content (around 50%) and one hectare of groundnut yields around 1000 litres of oil; the oil has a relatively low melting point, a medium iodine value and a high flash-point - characteristics which make it a suitable oil for biodiesel production
* the groundnut has a residue-to-product ratio of around 0.5-1.2 for pods and 2.2-2.9 for straw; this means that for every ton of nuts produced, 500 to 1200kg of shells become available and 2.2 to 2.9 tons of straw residue are harvested; in total groundnut yields between 3.7 and 5.1 tons of biomass per hectare
* these residues offer an interesting solid biofuel, with a relatively high energy content of 16Mj/kg for shells and 18Mj/kg for straw - with advanced bioconversion technologies (cellulosic ethanol or pyrolisis) this 'waste' biomass can be turned into liquid fuels and bioproducts; alternatively, it could be densified and used in biomass (co-firing) power plants

Back to Alabama. The Perihelion plant will employ approximately 150 people and will use peanuts grown by local and regional farmers to produce a projected 40 million gallons of bio-diesel annually from the facility. CEO John Beebe also announced that Perihelion had reached an agreement with local company, Crew Distributing, to distribute their biofuel.

Beebe said that at the projected capacity, the plant will provide the United States slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of the proposed mandatory fuel standard set by the president.

More information:

For the land suitability data, see the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and its dedicated website: Global Agro-ecological Assessment for Agriculture in the 21st century, made in collaboration with the FAO. At that website, click "spreadsheets" > "additional" and then select the crop in question.

The Human Development Index ranking for 2006 can be found here.

For an in-depth look into the economics of groundnut oil and its potential as a biodiesel feedstock, see: Biopact: The spirit of Rudolf Diesel: peanuts and socialism - Sept. 19, 2006.

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Lampung province on target to become major biofuel center

Lampung province in Indonesia is set to become a major production center for biofuels during the next four years, an official noted as he announced that four local companies are spending more than Rp 860 billion (€72.8/US$90.5 million) on bioenergy projects in the province, while a South Korean firm plans to invest more than Rp 90 trillion to build a bioethanol refinery.
  • CSM has planted a 20,000 hectare plot of land with cassava as a feedstock for ethanol (10,000 ha in Way Kanan, 5,000 ha in Tulangbawang and another 5,000 ha in North Lampung).
  • A project worth Rp 184 billion (€15.6/20.2 million) and managed by PT Acidatama Lampung Chemical Industry in Central Lampung was approved by the provincial administration in 2005.
  • In 2006, PT Bio Energi Ind. invested Rp 8.1 billion (€695,000/US$900,000) to build a plant in Tulangbawang regency. That year, three other local firms -- PT Sumi Asih in Bandarlampung, PT Medco Ethanol in Lampung and PT Luhur Prakarsa Maju Dinamika in North Lampung began investing a total of Rp 675.6 billion (€57.2/US$74.2 million).
  • Meanwhile, South Korean's PT CSM Corporation has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Lampung administration to invest Rp 90 trillion in the province to build an ethanol refinery in North Lampung.
The head of the Lampung Investment, Culture and Tourism Promotion Office, Syaifullah Sesunan, said the interest shown by investors indicated the province's potential and that foreign investors' trust had improved.
"We intend to become the center for biofuel in Indonesia. Large companies in Lampung such as PT Sugar Group, which has been producing refined sugar, and the PT Perkebunan Nasional VII state plantation company have built biodiesel and bioethanol plants, along with foreign investors." -- Syaifullah Sesunansaid head of the Lampung Investment, Culture and Tourism Promotion Office.
Lampung currently has a plantation area covering 543,800 hectares, producing 367,840 tons of palm oil a year, 5,386,062 tons of cassava annually and 7,101,600 tons of sugarcane yielding 340,876 tons of molasses annually.

Lampung Research and Development Agency head Rellyani was optimistic that biofuel production in Lampung could easily meet 10 percent of the province's energy demands as stipulated in a presidential decree on fuel supply. "Lampung is estimated (currently) consume around 43 million liters of bioethanol annually, while (biofuel) production capacity could reach 740 million liters a year," Rellyani said:
:: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::

"We're confident Lampung could become a bioethanol producing center and supply fuel to the western part of the country, particularly Sumatra and Java," she said. Rellyani estimated local demand for biodiesel at 97 million liters a year, "while production of biodiesel is projected at around 128 million liters annually. This shows a surplus in biodiesel production", she said. Rellyani added that Lampung was more suited to producing bioethanol than biodiesel.

"There is a huge amount of cassava and sugarcane here, and the soil conditions are also suitable to grow these crops."

"Biodiesel is made from palm oil and the jatropha plant. Most farmers prefer to turn palm oil into crude palm oil than biodiesel, while supplies of jatropha are still limited at the moment."

The government wants biofuels to make up 10 percent of total energy production by 2010, however, current production levels are well below this amount.

Total levels will increase, however, with the work of PT Medco Ethanol Lampung (MEL), which has been operating in North Lampung since October, and is targeting production of 60 million liters of bioethanol annually.

The country's first bioethanol plant is currently in the design and construction planning stage. Workers are building access roads to the factory site and securing partnerships with cassava and sugarcane suppliers.

PT MEL project director Panya Siregar said the company planned to invest around $4.12 million in the plant through a project funding scheme. The plant is expected to employ 150 workers and be backed by a supply of around 13,000 ha of cassava plantations, providing around 600,000 working days for farmers annually.

"The factory's presence will have positive impacts on supporting sectors, such as transportation, and create a new distribution network for cassava and sugarcane farmers," Panya said.

The company will also use modern technology to benefit from biogas produced from by-products, he said.

"The factory is designed to produce 180,000 liters of bioethanol daily or an equivalent of 60 million liters annually. In its initial stage, the company is planning to produce high quality ethanol for industry, especially for overseas markets, such as Singapore and Japan," Panya said.

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