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WATER RESOURCES RESEARCH, VOL. 30, NO. 2, PAGES 145-150,FEBRUARY 1994

 

How permeableare clays and shales?

C. E. Neuzil

U.S. GeologicalSurvey, Reston,Virginia

Abstract. The permeabilityof argillaceousformations, although rarely measuredand

poorlyunderstood,

is commonlya criticalparameter in analysesof subsurfaceflow.

Datanow available suggesta regularrelation betweenpermeability and porosityin

claysand shalesand permeabilitiesthat, even at largescales, are significantlylower

thanusually assumed.

Permeabilities

between 10 -23 and10 -17 m2 havebeen obtained

at porositiesbetween 0.1 and 0.4 in both laboratoryand regionalstudies. Although it is

clearthat transmissivefractures or other heterogeneitiescontrol the large-scale

hydraulicbehavior of certainargillaceous units, the permeabilityof manyothers is

apparentlyscale independent. These results have significantimplications for

understandingfluid transport rates and abnormal pressure generation in basins, and

couldprove importantfor waste isolationefforts.

Introduction

Laboratory Permeability Data

Sedimentaryunits dominated by clay are commonly the

leastpermeable parts of groundwaterflow systemsand, as such, strongly affect fluid fluxes and flow patterns. The

permeabilityof argillaceousunits is thereforea parameterof

considerableimportance for analyzing groundwater flow in

Until the 1970s, little was known about clay and shale

hydraulic properties beyond permeability data

obtained as a

by-product of consolidationtesting. Although attention has

been focused on the problem since then, the difficulty of measuring small permeabilities has continued to limit the

acquisitionof data. As a result, extensivepermeability data

sedimentaryenvironments, with particular importance at-

for these materials do not exist. In addition, a large fraction

tachingto the relation between permeability and porosity

because of the sediment compaction that accompanies burial. Unfortunately, it is usually infeasible to measure

permeabilityor its variation in argillaceousunits and few

reliableguidelines exist for estimating it. Specifically, there

arefew indicationsof (1) how permeability relates to poros-

ity in thesemedia and (2) how small the permeability of these

sediments can be at various

scales.

Researchers

have used

estimatesbased on a few widely cited measurements[e.g.,

Magara, 1978;Neglia, 1979]or anecdotalvalues [e.g., Davis

andDe Wiest, 1966; Lambe and Whitman, 1969; Freeze and

Cherry, 1979] and have im,oked more or less arbitrary relationsbetween permeability and porosityto accountfor

compaction,practices that add considerableuncertainty to

analyses.As a result, clay and shale permeabilities are

amongthe most significant uncertainties in manyattempts to

quantify subsurface flow.

Datanow availableprovide new insightinto this problem

andsuggest that it is time/to reevaluate the treatment of clay

andshale permeability

in flow simulations.

The relatively

low permeabilitiesthese data imply at typical porosities

indicatethat fluid fluxes in some flow systemscould be

significantlysmaller than analysesindicate; elucidation of

thesefluxes is crucialfor understandingphenomena such as

abnormal

pressure generation, petroleum and ore emplace-

ment, and deformation of sediments,and for guidingintelli-

gent exploitationof the subsurfacefor purposes such as

wasteisolation. This paper synthesizesthese data and de-

scribestheir implications.

of the laboratory data that are available are not suited for

hydrogeologicapplications. Many studiesused purified clays

or reconstituted sediments, leaving in question the applica-

bility of the resultsto natural systems.Others failed to report

porosity(or void ratio) or gaveno indicationof how the data

were obtained. Only a

handfull of

laboratory determinations

(1) used natural media in an undisturbedstate, (2) monitored

the reported porosity or equivalent information, and (3)

showed evidence that the measurements were made using

appropriatemethodology and carefultechnique. Laboratory

data I have found that meet these criteria, including data

obtained in a recent investigationof the Pierre Shale, are

plotted in Figure

1 with backgroundinformation given in

Table 1. With the exception of values for the Pierre Shale,

which are presentedhere for the first time, these data are

from published sources.

For completeness,some widely cited data were included

in Figure 1 (dashedlines) even thoughthe test protocolwas

not reported.Test protocolis a critical considerationbe-

causemeasurements of small permeability are quite suscep-

tible to errors. Minutes leaks in the testing apparatus or

around the specimenin the test cell and subtle damageor

deteriorationof the specimenitself are especiallydifficult to

avoid and make measuredpermeabilities too large; skepti- cismof relativelylarge reported values is prudent.In view of

this, the significanceof regions11 and 12 is problematical.

In contrast, various considerationsindicate that the data

shownwith solid lines in Figure ! are reliable. Regions1, 3,

5, and8 wereeach defined by morethan one testing technique (see Table 1). Other data were obtainedusing robust and

well-established mechanical transient (consolidation) tech-

Thispaper is not subject

AmericanGeophysical

to U.S. copyright.

Union.

Published

in 1994 by the

Papernumber 93WR02930.

niques(region 6) or with particularcare devotedto the test

equipmentand procedures (regions 2, 4, 7, 9, and 10).

Figure 1 suggeststhat a log-linearrelation betweenper-

145

                         

146

     

NEUZIL'

HOW PERMEABLE

ARE CLAYS AND SHALES?

   
   

Loghydraulic

conductivity,

m.s 'l

 

permeabilitiessmaller than shownin Figure 1, and thereis

 

-16

-14

-12

     

-10

 

-8

reason to believe that the minimum measured valuesare

   

................

I

I

I

I

 

I

I

I

                   

indeed close to the minimum values which can be expected

 

0o8-

               

in thesemedia. Grim [ 1968,p. 464]tabulated values of clay

                   

specificsurface area. It

is reasonableto associatethe largest,

           

6

     

a theoretical maximum for montmorillonite, with the lowest

                   

clay permeabilities.Using this value in the Kozeny-Carman

                   

relationyields values within an orderof magnitudeof the

                   

minimum values in Figure

1. This

argues that the data

  • 0.2 -

I

delineateminimum clay and shalepermeabilities reasonably

well.

0.0

I,

r'

I

-20

.11

I

,

I

-18

I

Logpermeability,

m2

....I

,,

-16

I

Effect

of Scale

Many workers expect an increase in permeability with

scalein low-permeabilitymedia [Bethke, 1989],leading them

Figure 1.

Plot of laboratory-derived permeability versus

porosity for a variety of natural argillaceousmedia. Perme-

ability is shown alongthe lower

horizontalscale: the corre-

sponding hydraulic conductivity to water at room tempera-

ture is shown alongthe upper horizontal scale.The numbers are keyed to Table 1 which provides the sourceof the data

and background information.

to discount laboratory-derived permeabilities as beingtoo

low. The scaledependency, usually attributed to fracturesor

comminglingof nonclaysediments, can be difficultto detect

directly but is clearly presentin someargillaceous units. The

PierreShale, for example,which has a 10-20 m 2 permeabil.

ity at laboratoryscale (region 8 in Figure 1), has a regional

permeabilityof 10-16 m2 [Bredehoeft

et al., 1983].Scale

dependencealso has been detectedin lacustrineclay [Ru-

meability and porosity exists over an exceptionallywide

range of consolidationstates; materialsranging from re-

dolpheta!., 1991]and clay till [Keller et al., 1988]and is implied in numerousinstances when in situ permeability

measurementsin shalesyield relatively large values [Davis,

cently depositedmarine clays to mildly metamorphosed

argillite are represented.Excluding regions 11 and 12, the

data fall in a bandapproximately three ordersof magnitude

wide that spansporosities exceeding 0.8 to less than 0.1.

Permeabilitydecreases by approximatelyan order of mag-

nitude with each 0.13 decrease in porosity and ranges over

eightorders of magnitude.Regions 11 and 12depart from the

trend, suggestinglabo'ratory-scale

permeabilities exceeding

10-•7 m2 at porositiesas low as0.2.

The log-linearrelation exhibited by the datain Figure1 is

1988].

Other evidence, however, shows that permeabilityscale

dependenceis not ubiquitousin argillaceousmedia and,

whenpresent, may affect flow only at the largestregional

scales, and not at intermediate scales. I found several instanceswhere clay and shalepermeabilities at subregional

to regionalscales (kilometers to hundredsof kilometers)are

consistentwith the trend shown in Figure 1. These large-

scalepermeabilities

are plottedin Figure2 to permitcom-

parisonwith the laboratorydata; Table 2 providesthe

not unexpectedfor clay-richmedia. Several theoretical

expressionsrelate permeability to porosityand poresize;

one derived by Kozeny [1927] and modified by Carman

[1937],which uses specific surface area as a measureof pore

size, appearsto provideuseful insight in the presentcontext.

Althoughthe Kozeny-Carmanequation is basedon rather

restrictiveassumptions [Scheidegger, 1974], it predictsper-

meabilityof kaoliniteclay cakeswith reasonableaccuracy

backgroundinformation.

The datain Figure2 were obtainedfrom inverseanalyses

of a varietyof flow systems.Inverse analysis yields esti-

matesof systemproperties, generally, by numericallysimu-

latingflow and adjusting the valueof uncertainparameters

to

obtaincomputed

hydraulic conditions

that best match those

observed.inverse methodswork reliably for well-posed

problemsand generally

are the only way to evaluatesmall

[Olsen, 1962].The predictedrelation is nearlylog linear,

with a slopesimilar to that suggestedby Figure1.

The broad rangein permeabilityat a givenporosity in

Figure1 (evenif regions11 and 12 are discounted)

could

have multiplecauses. First, very smallpermeabilities

are

measured at or near the limits of instrumentalresolution,

permeabilitiesat large scales.

Certaininverse analyses yielded only maximumvalues;

theseare indicated

by arrowsin Figure2. In thecase of

regions6 and 7, thisis duesimply to ambiguityinherent

in

the analyses;a rangeof permeabilitieslower than those

indicatedgive equally good matches

to observedconditions.

which can introduce error. Second, effects of anisotropy

may be presentin someof the data,with differentperme-

abilitiesalong and across depositional

planes. However, the

bulk of the variation is attributable to differencesin clay

microstructure,

which Olsen [1962] considered

to arisefrom

clusteringof clay particles.Experiments

with clay cakes

[Mitchellet al., 1965]show nearly three orders of magnitude

variationin permeabilitybecause of microstructural

differ-

ences.Comparable

variation is expectablein naturebecause

of the physicallyand chemically

diverse environments

in

whichargillaceous sediments are deposited.

No data are known to me that indicate clay or shale

Theuncertainty in region5 existsbecause inverse analyses

sometimes

incorporate

significant

changes

in permeability

overgeologic time. Region5 is derivedfrom an inverse

analysisofgeopressures

byBethke [1986a].

insediments

ofthe U.S. GulfCoast

These sediments

may have expelled

during

parts

of

excessfluid through

natural

hydrofractures

theirhistory [Engelder, 1993, p. 41;Capuano, 1993]. If

permeability

indeed

varied

in time with the presence

and

absenceof transmissivefractures, region 5 representsa

time-integrated

average

of thetwo conditions.

Only the

unfractured permeability, which must be smaller, isdirectly

comparable

withthe laboratory

measurements

inFigure

1.

                 
                 
   

NEUZIL: HOW PERMEABLEARE CLAYS AND SHALES?

       

147

Table1. BackgroundInformation

for LaboratoryPermeability

Data Plotted in Figure1

Orienta-

Number or

Effective

       

Region

               

in

Formation

Lithology

Typeof Test*

tionto

Measure- Stress,

       

Figure1

(Location)

(Mineralogy)

(Permeant)

Bedding

ments

MPa

 

Source

 

1

bottomdeposit

bottommud (illite,

mechanical

normal(?) 48

0.04--0.4

Silva

et

al.

 
 

(North Pacific)

smectite)

transient,

   

[1981]

   
 

steady flow,

 

and quasi-

steady flow

 

(seawater)

  • 2 bottom deposit

bottom mud (illite,

steadyflow

normal

19

(North Pacific)

smectite)

(seawater)

 
  • 3 bottomdeposit

bottommud (illite,

mechanical

normal(9.) 26

(North Pacific)

chlorite)

transient,and

 

quasi-steady

flow (seawater)

  • 4 bottom mud (illite,

bottom deposit

steadyflow

normal

22

(North Pacific)

chlorite)

(seawater)

 

Pleistoceneto

marine and

steady flow and

normal (9.)

approxi-

Recent (Quebec,

lacustrineclay

quasi-steady

mately

Mississippi

flow (natural

600

Delta, Sweden)

pore water and

 

distilled water)

  • 6 Gulf of Mexico

unconsolidated

mechanical

various

approxi-

sediment;

transient

mately

varying

(seawater)

250

proportions of

clay, silt, and

sand

Sutherland Group

  • 7 glacial till

mechanical

normal

27

(Saskatchewan)

(montmofillonite,

transient

and

illite, kaolinite)

quasi-steady

 
 

flow (natural

pore water and

distilled water)

Pierre Shale

claystone (mixed

mechanical

normal

85

(central South

layer,

transient,

and

Dakota)

montmorillonite,

hydraulic

parallel

illite)

transient,

 

steady flow

 

(pore water

duplicate and

distilled water)

9t

Lower Cretaceous

clayey siltstone,

steady flow (3.5

normal

25

(Western

clayey sandstone

and 5.8%

and

Canada)

sodium

parallel

chloride)

  • 10 Eleana Formation argillite (quartz,

hydraulic

various

23

(Nevada)

illite, chlorite,

transient

kaolinite)

1!

(Japan and

mudstone, sandy

? (8 to 32 x 103 9.

 

33

Alberta, Canada)

mudstone,

mg/L sodium

 

silstone, shale

chloride)

  • 12 Upper Triassic,

clay, shale

?

?

8

Mid-Miocene,

Lower

Pliocene

(Italy)

 

Morin

and

Silva

 

[1984]

 
 

Silva

et

al.

 
 

[19811

 
 

Morin

and

Silva

 

[1984]

 

0.04-0.3

Tavenas

et

aI.

 

[1983]

 
 

Bryant et al.

 
 

[1975]

 

0.06-2.0

Keller

et

al.

 

[1989]

0.1-50

C.

E.

Neuzit

 
 

(unpublished

data, 1987)

0-40

Young et al.

 
 

[1964]

 

1.1-24.1 Lin [1978]

 
 

Magara[1978]

Neglia [1979]

*Mechanicaltransient tests include standardconsolidation tests and similarprocedures involving transient deformation

undermechanical

loads. Hydraulic transient tests, which include pulse and injection tests, involve varying the hydraulic

ofthe sample and analyzing

the transient

pressure

response.

Quasi-steady

flow tests are also known as

of low-permeability

testing

boundary

conditions

fallinghead tests. Steady flow tests are "standard" permeability

tests. For further discussion

methodologies,

see Neuzil [1986].

t?orosityestimated

from description

of samples.

                       

148

         

NEUZIL: HOW PERMEABLEARE CLAYSAND SHALES?

   

i

Log hydraulicconductivity,

m.s 4

-14

I

I

-•2

'

i

'

-10

1 ..........

!

-8

i

 

1980;Davis, 1988]which implied that the permeabilityscale

effect in argillaceous rocks could be small.

 

0.8

                 

Only two formationsare representedin both Figures! and

                     

2: the SutherlandTill and the Pierre Shale. Keller et al.

 

0.6

             

iii;;

.....

[1989] found that laboratorytests and inverse estimates

yielded comparablevalues of permeability for the Suther.

                     

landTill (compareregion 7 in Figure1 andregion 2 in Figure

                     

2). However, the inverseestimates apply to relativelysmall

 

0.4

                 

volumeshaving maximum dimensions of tens of meters.In

0.2

0

-18

Logpermeability,

m2

-16

-14

Figure 2. Plot of large-scalepermeability versus porosity

for a variety of argillaceousunits derived from inverse analysesof flow systems.Permeability and hydrauliccon-

ductivity scalesare as in Figure 1. Dotted lines show data

from Figure 1 to facilitate comparison.Arrows indicate

results which are upper limits for the permeability. The

numbers are keyed to Table 2.

the case of the Pierre Shale, as already noted, basinwide

analysis[Bredehoeft et al., 1983]yielded a relativelylarge

permeabilityof 10 -16 m 2 (!0-9 ms-l); thisresult applies

to

an area with dimensions of hundreds of kilometers. A more

recentstudy of a fewkm 2 portion of the basin [NeuziI, 1993]

shows,however, that a muchsmaller value (region3, Figure

2) applies there. Permeability scale dependenceexists, but

apparentlyonly at to the presenceof

greaterthan kilometer scale. This points transmissivefractures that are separated

by distancesof kilometersor more. Note also that manyof

the laboratory values for the Pierre Shale are higher thanthe

inverseestimate (compare region 8, Figure 1 and region3,

Figure 2), probably because of deterioration of the core

samplesbefore laboratory testing [Neuzil, !993].

The agreement between laboratory and inverse values in

Figures I and 2 is striking and providesexplicit evidencefor

scale independence of permeability in argillaceous media.

Significant fracture permeability apparently is absent in

these materials, which includea highly lithified, low porosity unit that one would expect to be prone to fracturing (region

7 in Figure 2). This result extends earlier evidence [Brace,

Implications

The increasing speed of

digital computers has stimulated

efforts to analyze subsurface fluid flow using numerical

simulation. For example, significant effort has been devoted

to analyzing paleoflow in sedimentary basins becauseof its

relevance to economic minerals

and waste disposal. Re.

cently, we have seen studies that have simulated paleof10w

Table 2.

Background Information for Inverse Permeability Estimates Plotted in Figure 2

Region

Vertical and

 

in

Formation

Lithology

Type of

Orientation

Horizontal

Figure 2

(Location)

(Mineralogy)

Analysis

to Bedding

Dimensions

 

Source

1

(Barbados

clay, calcareous

transient flow

various

1 and 15 km

 

Screaton et al.

Accretionary

mudstone

[ 1990]

 

Ridge complex)

 

2

Sutherland Group

glacial till

transient flow

normal and

<50 and

---10 m

Keller et aI.

 

(Saskatchewan)

(montmorillonite,

parallel

[ 1989]

 

kaolinite)

3

Pierre Shale

claystone (mixed

transient

flow

normal

0.3

and

>

1 km

Neuzil [1993]

(Central South

layer,

Dakota)

montmorillonite,

 

illite)

4*

Colorado Group

claystone, shale

transient flow

normal

0.5

and > 100 km

Corbet

and

and Upper

Bethke [1992]

Manville

Shales

(Alberta)

5

Gulf

of Mexico

clay, shale

transient flow

normal

!0

and

>300

km

Bethke [1986a]

6*

Pierre, Cafiile,

claystone and shale

steady state flow

normal

3

and

800 km

Belitz

and

Graneros

Bredehoeft

Shales (Denver

 

[1988]

 

Basin)

7

(Siberia)

"argillaceous

transient flow

normal (?)

Nesterov

and

 

rock"

Ushatinskii as

 

reportedby

Brace [1980]

*Porosityrange

estimated

from depth

and thickness

ofsediments

(T.F. Corbet,

Jr., Sandia

National

Laboratory,

personal

communication, 1993, and K. Belitz, Dartmouth College, personal communication, 1993).

     

NEUZIL:

HOW PERMEABLE

ARE CLAYS AND SHALES'?

149

regimesdriven by compaction[Bethke, 1985; Harrison and

Figures 1 and 2, with the latter based on flow at moderate to

Summa,1991], tectonic deformation[Deming et al., 1990:

low gradients,argues against the existenceof any significant

Ge and Garven, 1992], topographicrelief [Garven, 1985,

1989;Bethke, 1986b,Senger and Fogg, 1987], and erosion

non-Darcianeffects in the media represented.

 
   

[Sengeret al., 1987].Such analyses

are inherently

uncertain

Conclusions

 

becausethe systemhydraulic properties in the geologicpast

 

mustbe estimated.Permeabilities or rangesof permeability assumedfor argillaceousunits, as in the studiescited above,

Much remainsto be learned about the hydraulic properties

of clays and shales.For example, we are unable to predict

arecommonly

between 10 -•9 to 10-16 m2 (hydrauliccon-

how and where heterogeneity(due to depositionalarchitec-

 

ductivityof 10-12 to 10-9 ms-1) forporosities

less than 0.4.

ture or fracturing)will affect large-scalepermeability in these

 

Figures1 and2 suggestthat argillaceousformations can be

muchless permeable,

with values in therange of 10-23 to

10-17 m 2 (10-16 to 10-10 ms -1) forthe same porosity range.

Of course, argillaceous units mapped at large scales fre-

quentlyincorporate

relatively permeable subunits and their

permeabilitycan be correspondinglyhigh. Nevertheless,

as

Figure2 shows,they apparentlycan be dominatedby their low-permeabilitycomponents. This probablyis mostoften

true for flow normal to stratification, which is controlled by

media. For the present,when explicit data are not available, flow analysesmust considera range of permeability values

for argillaceous units. Unless there is evidence to the con-

trary, permeability values as low as those indicated in

Figures 1 and 2 should be considered possible even at

regional scales. Values lower than shown, however, proba-

bly need not be considered.Because laboratory permeabil-

itiesat similarporosities

can vary by a factorof 103,

stratification in argillaceous sediments may create perme-

theleast permeable horizons.

Adoptionof the relatively low permeabilitiesindicated by

Figures1 and2 wouldresult in reinterpretationof someflow

regimes.In a topographicallydriven flow systemmediated

byleakage through a shale,simulations using lowered shale

permeabilitiesat basin scale (hundreds of kilometers)would

indicate reduced rates of fluid transport throughout the

system.Phenomena associated with advectivefluid trans-

port,such as petroleumaccumulation and eraplacementof

ores,would require more time or differentmechanisms than

originallyindicated.

In geologicallyactive areas, such as the foreland basin

undergoingtectonic compression analyzed by Ge and Gar-

ven[1992], the permeabilityof argillaceoussediments can

determinethe degree to which flow is affected by the

geologicactivity. Rock deformation caused by tectonic

compression, for example,tends to perturbfluid pressures; a

smallpermeability causes the perturbationsto persist and

accumulateto significantlevels. A variety of geological

processescan similarly affect fluid pressure[Neuzil, 1986].

Becausethe data presented here suggestpermeabilities

lowerthan usuallyassumed, they also imply that abnormal

pressurescaused by such geologicforcing may occur more

readilythan presently supposed. This is consistentwith the

widespreadoccurrence of features suchas thrust faulting andmultiple generationfracturing, which are thought to

requirehigh fluid pressures[Engelder, 1990].

The permeabilitydata presentedhere also have implica-

tionsfor subsurfacewaste isolation, In a broad sense, the

ability anisotropyof a similarmagnitude. These conclusions

probably apply to a wide variety of

much as clayey siltstone and even

represented in the data.

clayey deposits,inas-

clayey sandstone are

Acknowledgments.

I wish to

thankGrant Garven, Ward Sanford,

Dave Rudolph,Craig Bethke, and two anonymousreviewers for

their helpful commentson this paper.

References

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Bull., 72(11), 1334-1359, 1988.

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water flow

and heat transfer and its

compaction-drivenground-

application to the paleohy-

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intracratonicsedimentary basins, J. Geophys.Res.,

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Bethke,C. M., Hydrologicconstraints on the genesisof the Upper

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a directimplication for repositorysiting. The absenceof

secondarypermeability in someargillaceous

formations may

makethem viable repository venues.

  • I haveskirted questions about the applicabilityof Darcy's

lawin argillaceousmedia. Uncertaintyattaches to flow at

moderateto low hydraulicgradients in clayeymaterials' in

particular,various investigators have

describedso-called

thresholdgradients below which clay behavesas if it is

impermeable[Neuzil, 1986]. Laboratory tests use hydraulic

gradientsthat are too largeto allowdefinitive tests of such

non-Darcianflow models. However, the agreementbetween

laboratoryand inversepermeability

estimates evident in

ico, Mar. Geotechnolo.,1(1), I-I4,

1975.

Capuano,R. M., Evidenceof fluidflow in microfracturesin geopres-

suredshales, Am. Asso.Petl. Geol.Bull., 77(8),1303-1304, 1993.

Carman,P. C., Fluidflow through granular beds, Trans. Inst. Chem.

Eng., 15, 150-I66, 1937.

Corbet,T. F., andC. M. Bethke,Disequilibrium

fluid pressures

and

groundwaterflow in the westernCanada sedimentary

basin, J.

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