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What is the best steel for a knife ?

What is the best steel for a knife ?

Introduction

In the knife making the steel represents the soul of the knife, which is determined by such factors as edge retention of sharpness, corrosion resistance, ductility (strength) and ease of sharpening. Among all the parameters, the cornerstone in creating a knife blade is hardness and geometry. Not every steel is capable of keeping any sharpening angle chosen by the knife maker. One should choose the steel based on the conditions in which they will use the knife.

First you need to know the purpose of the knife and, depending on this, choose the right size and geometry. Then comes the selection of the appropriate steel for the knife and proper heat treatment. Before hardening, steel is just steel, and only after receiving the correct hardness level, the blade turns into a knife.

Therefore, there is simply no knife steel that could best for all purposes. There is only one or another steel, which, according to the sum of specifications, is the best for certain types of tasks. 

1. Properties and purpose of knife steels

In order to choose the steel for a knife for a specific purpose, you have to understand the essence of factors that together determine the properties of the blade, which include:

  • Sharpness retention
  • Ductility
  • Corrosion resistance
  • Wear resistance
  • Geometry types and cutting edge retention

1.1. Sharpness retention

The sharpness retention of any blade is determined by the hardness level according to the Rockwell scale in HRC units, as well as the number, size and hardness of carbides. The higher the HRC number and the harder and coarser the iron carbides, the less wear occurs in contact with the material being cut. 

An example. Blades with a fairly high hardness level can serve for a very long time if used properly. That is, you should only make linear cuts, without lateral loads. A Rockstead knife made of ZDP steel can cut cardboard, but the blade will not survive hitting a hard bone.

On the Internet, you can find a lot of information on the Catra system for comparison of number of cuts that can be made with different steels at a certain hardness level at specified angles for the same material. In a way, such statistics can give an idea of the steel capabilities, but in reality everything is somewhat different, considering that the blade will work on different materials and the degree of dullness of a knife made of the same steel will definitely be different for each user.

In addition, there are other methods of checking the edge retention of sharpness, such as the rope cutting test. However, there may be a different methodology for each individual case, and only after collecting a fairly huge amount of data, you can draw certain conclusions. Collecting data on your own does not guarantee an understanding of your knife's behavior.

If you are interested in the details, you can always search the Internet for this test data if you search for: "CATRA's TCC".

1.2. Ductility or strength

The ductility of steel is a physical property that prevents chipping, cracks, and often also damage of the knife blade tip. 

The ductility is influenced by: steel hardness, oxygen or sulfur impurities, grain size, number and size of carbides, as well as the distance between the carbides themselves. The formula for this parameter is simple – the more aggressive the knife cuts, the higher its sharpness and the less ductility its blade has. To put it another way, the greater the hardness value, the less ductile the steel is. 

An example. ZDP-189, Maxamet or Rex121 steels will be very sharp at high hardness levels, but they will have a very low ductility. On the contrary, steels with lower hardness and less carbon will be more ductile and can withstand lateral loads without consequences.

Let us take a look at a hacksaw blade for an example. The saw blades are made of bimetallic compound, have high flexibility and at the same time high cutting performance.

Among knife manufacturers, Cold Steel is known for testing and demonstrating the properties of their knives in which blades undergo significant stresses but do not lose their mechanical properties.

Among other things, the concept of strength or ductility as such does not have any recognized scale of measurement. 

1.3. Corrosion resistance

Corrosion resistance or the ability to resist rust. Often, when it comes to corrosion resistance, many believe that knife blades do not rust on their own, but it is wrong. Any steel that can be tempered cannot be absolutely stainless by design. The corrosion resistance ability depends on the combination of properties that ensure the sharpness edge retention and ductility.

Alloying elements such as chromium, molybdenum and tungsten play an important role in this.

It is generally believed that a steel with a 13% chromium content can be considered stainless. However, the presence of a high amount of carbon makes any steel dependent on the carbon-chromium bond.

In other words there is a combination of boundary carbon content and alloying additives that can provide corrosion resistance below the level of which the steel will rust one way or another. The threshold value is the presence of less than 10 % chromium in the compound.  

You can also refer to a number of publicly available tests and descriptions, but not all statistics are in the same units of measurement. Various well-known websites and manufacturers publish data in units of Longitudinal Toughness or in units of Transverse Toughness.

Other statistics do not specify the exact testing methodology and therefore it is difficult to rely entirely on such data.

Based on statistics, it is possible to understand only the general behavior of one or another steel.

1.4. Wear resistance

One of the most important qualities of the blade is its wear resistance. This property, along with chemical composition and hardness, is provided by the density of grain and iron carbides bond, as well as their size and number. The tighter the structural connection and the greater the steel hardness, the more wear-resistant the blade. A highly-wear resistant knife blade is more difficult to sharpen.

1.5. Geometry and cutting edge retention

The concept of cutting edge retention as one of the knife blade properties is directly related to knives’ geometry types and sharpening angle. For each steel grade with its specific properties, you should choose a sharpening angle suitable for your purposes. The wrong angle will affect the cutting quality or will significantly reduce the time period before a new sharpening is needed.

2. Properties of alloying additives

In a broad sense, steel is metal compounds with alloying additives, the basis of which is iron and carbon.

All the described physical properties of steels are due to the combination of all the chemical elements in the steel alloy. That is, from a chemical point of view, steel is a ligature of iron and iron carbides. The addition of carbon and other alloying elements to the alloy, combined with thermomechanical processing, gives the steel the necessary parameters for a particular purpose. Very often, or almost always, the steel has several chemical elements in the alloy, not just one.

2.1. Carbon

Carbon is found in nature (in its pure form) in the form of diamonds or graphite, as well as combined with natural oil, gas, coal and hydrocarbon, and has been known to mankind since ancient times.

Carbon is the most important alloying element in steel and is represented by the cementite compound - Fe3C. The importance of carbon in steel is due to its effect on steel properties and phase shift. The higher the carbon content, the harder but more brittle the steel is.

Mechanically speaking, the more carbon in steel, the lower the melting point, but it forms cementite and increases hardness and ductility.

A metal alloyed compound based on iron is also considered to be steel if carbon is present within the range of 0.002% to 2.06%. Steel hardening, however, is only possible with carbon content starting at 0.3 %.

If there is more carbon in a steel alloy, it can lead to brittleness and lower forgeability, lower weldability and lower impact toughness.

If the steel lacks carbon, it can be enriched with carbon with the help of coal in the crucible.

2.2. Chromium

Chromium as an iron alloying element lowers ultra-fast critical cooling, increases wear resistance and heat resistance. Chromium increases strength and serves as a carbide-forming element. About 13% of chromium in the alloy drastically increase the corrosion resistance, that is why they use it for the production of stainless steels or to be more accurate conditionally stainless steels. In addition, chromium stabilizes ferrite chemical compounds and phase shifts.

However, chromium also has some negative effects - it may reduce impact strength, forgeability and weldability. On the other hand chromium lowers thermal conductivity, which in turn shifts the temperature treatment chart to another level.

If the alloy contains chromium, the steel can be quenched in open air or in oil. Chromium carbides increase sharpness edge retention, wear and heat resistance.

2.3. Manganese

The presence of manganese in steel improves forgeability, weldability, strength and wear resistance. Besides, manganese in iron has a positive effect on reducing the tendency to fracture during eutectoid transformation and has a ferrite-stabilizing effect in high-alloy steels.

Manganese increases the hardness and strength of ferrite and improves mechanical properties. In terms of heat treatment, it increases hardenability and removes excessive oxygen and sulfur, thereby resisting the formation of sulfides. The effect of this kind on steel also depends on the carbon content in the steel.

2.4. Molybdenum

Molybdenum is a transition metal and was often confused with lead in the past for its silvery white gloss. Today it is an important alloying element in the steel industry and is used in combination with other alloying elements. 

Molybdenum increases hardness, tensile strength and weldability of steel alloys. On the other hand, it reduces forgeability and ductility.

Molybdenum improves the tempering process of steel after quenching and enhances the effect of other alloying elements and is therefore used in combination. Molybdenum, like some other alloying elements binds to carbon and forms carbides, which in turn increase steel hardness and corrosion resistance.

2.5. Cobalt

In nature, cobalt is a rare metal that can only be found in conjunction with other elements. Cobalt is most often extracted from copper or nickel-containing ores. In the past, it was used to create coloring pigments.

Cobalt is one of the alloying elements that resists the formation of coarse grains at high temperatures and improves heat resistance. Because of this, cobalt is very commonly used for making tool steels. The presence of this element makes the steel more fine-grained and denser in its structure, which in turn greatly increases the wear resistance of the blade. 

2.6. Nickel

Nickel is also a transition metal and has been known to mankind for about 5,000 years. Nickel was mined with other ores and used for bronze alloying.

Nickel as an alloying additive increases tensile strength and elastic limit. Corrosion resistance increases with the presence of 8% of nickel and more. Nickel also lowers the melting point and stabilizes ferrite compounds. Unlike chromium and carbon compounds, nickel increases hardness and durability without sacrificing strength properties. Quite often they use this alloying element in stainless steels.

2.7. Vanadium

Vanadium is a heavy metal. It is quite common and is present in various minerals and ores. It is used mainly in the steel production industry.

When bonded with carbon, vanadium forms its own carbides, which increase strength, wear resistance and hardness. A small amount of vanadium can prevent the formation of large grains. After quenching and tempering, subsequent heat treatment becomes very difficult.

2.8. Tungsten

Tungsten is considered a heavy metal and is not present in nature in its pure form, but is mined from minerals and ore. For this reason, it was only discovered in 1783 by the Spanish chemist Fausto and Juan José Elhuyar.

The most common use for tungsten is in the manufacture of light bulbs in the form of a metal thread that emits light. This metal has a high melting point.

Tungsten, as well as some of the alloying elements described above, contributes to the formation of tungsten carbides and thus increases tensile strength and wear resistance. Tungsten in the steel composition provides better shaping at high temperatures. For this reason, this element is used in tool, high speed and heat resistant steels. Tungsten has no effect on the elasticity of steel.

2.9. Silicon

Silicon is a non-metal, but it is a semiconductor and the second most commonly found element on the planet.

Silicon is often used together with tungsten, as their combination increases wear resistance. Silicon itself increases tensile strength. During steel melting, it resists the formation of carbides but makes the alloy more fluid, removes oxides and stabilizes ferrites.

2.10. Niobium and tantalum

Sometimes niobium and tantalum, both of which exist in nature as heavy metals, can be found in steel alloys. In steel making, they contribute to and form carbides and make the steel immune to chemical influence and almost stainless. Even in small amounts, these elements increase strength.  

These are only the main types of alloying elements, and there are many more of them. Steel with certain alloying elements, which the knife manufacturer has chosen, reflect the purpose of the knife blade. To put it plainly - before you decide to choose a steel, just think about what exactly you want to do with the knife.

3. Types of steels and their properties

3.1. Carbon Steels

Knives and other cutting tools blades made of rust-prone carbon steels have been used by mankind for a very long time. This kind of steel is known and still popular today due to its cutting characteristics.

The higher the carbon content of the alloy, the higher hardness level the knife blade can reach through hardening. Carbon steel blades are usually hardened to 58 — 61.5 HRC.

The most important aspect is the lower corrosion resistance and reaction to moisture and various acids. Such steel may change its coloring and become stained, but this does not affect the performance characteristics.

If you put carbon steel under a microscope, you will see a coarser structure due to grain size and structural bonds comparing to other steels. On the one hand this provides a more aggressive cutting performance, but on the other hand it exposes the steel surface to external influences.

To avoid rusting after use, such blades should be rinsed under the tap and then thoroughly dried and, if necessary, oiled.

Carbon steels can be divided into three groups according to their content: up to 0.25%, from 0.25% to <0.55%, and above 0.55%.

The main feature of carbon steels are high cutting aggression, but they are prone to oxidation and corrosion.

3.2. Conditionally stainless alloy or corrosion resistant steels

The main similarity between carbon and alloy steels lies in the presence of the main component in the alloy - iron. Many properties and characteristics of both steels are very similar, including the hardness, which is determined by the amount of carbon in the alloy.

Alloy steels are a generalized term that can be used to describe a fairly wide range of different steel grades. In fact, the industry distinguishes between several major subgroups.

In the knife world, alloy steels are the industrial steels used to make knives. These steels are usually created with chromium, molybdenum, nickel, cobalt and other alloying elements. Such steels are much easier to handle than carbon steels as their corrosion resistance is several times higher. 

It is a common belief that alloy steels are less hard than carbon steels and a little more difficult to sharpen. However, one must understand that if you choose the appropriate heat treatment, you can achieve comparable hardness levels. In terms of sharpening, it all depends on choosing the right abrasives. Very prominent examples of alloy steels are VG-10, 440C und AUS-8. 

3.3. Damascus Steels

Damascus are steels created based on the combination of carbon and alloy steels. During forging and bending, the steel grades form a single bar. The purpose of creating such steel is not only to receive a knife with a beautiful and unique pattern, but also to give the blade the properties of several steel grades. A knife blade can have a very sharp cutting edge, and the entire blade can be quite tough to break. Some blades may have a higher level of flexibility in the spine, compared to their cutting edge, in case of differential hardening. 

The main issue, as with carbon steels, is the low corrosion resistance of the carbon steel layers. For this reason damascus knives’ blades can have special layers where the sharper carbon steel is protected by layers of alloy steel according to the sanmai principle. Japanese kitchen knives’ blades with VG-10 steel are the best example.

Due to its properties, Damascus steel can withstand heavy loads and can be used outdoors as a camping or survival knife if properly maintained. Just like other steels, Damascus steel blades can be sharpened without any difficulty. The only drawback is the much higher price of damascus knives, which is significantly different from the others due to the complex manufacturing process.

3.4. Powder Steels

Powder steels gained much fame and development in the 21st century. Due to the development of the chemical industry, steel manufacturers have learned to combine the properties of known steels with alloying elements to create steels of higher quality than before.

This new stage in the development of knife steels is based on a fundamentally new manufacturing approach compared to other steels. Powder steel is made from metal powder and alloying elements, which results in a very fine-grained steel structure with a very good strength properties.

Steels of this type have helped to fuel the sharp rise of the knife industry around the world.

Powder steels, while having a high cost, are largely superior to all others due to their physical and chemical parameters. In the knife industry, knife blades made from such steel grades are very common due to the low defect rate. Knife blades made of this steel stand out mainly for their high hardness, durability and very high corrosion resistance. The microstructure of such steels provides high sharpness at a small thickness behind the cutting edge and good edge retention of sharpness.

In other words, a knife blade made of powdered steel retains its sharpness much longer than other steels.

The structure of powder steels includes martensite, carbides and various non-metallic compounds. Although the martensitic structure of powder steel is very hard and brittle, the finer grain size, high density and even distribution of carbides ensures very high performance. 

4. Practical properties of steels

Strictly speaking, when considering the characteristics of individual groups of steels, it will become clear that there are many similarities within one group. At times, some properties are even very difficult to distinguish in practice.

In this article we will consider only a number of the best known steels, which are also financially useful.

4.1. Premium Steel

4.1.1. ZDP-189 Steel

ZDP-189 is a steel with a particularly high carbon and chromium content, which makes a knife blade made of this steel very hard. According to knife manufacturers, blades made of ZDP -189 can have a sharpness of about 64 HRC and sometimes even 67 HRC. The hardness of the blade, combined with other properties, ensures a long lasting cutting edge retention of sharpness. On the other hand, you have to accept the fact that sharpening such steel is not exactly easy.

4.1.2. Elmax SuperClean Steel

Elmax steel is a chrome-molybdenum-vanadium alloyed powder steel hardened to about 62 HRC. The high wear resistance of the steel is combined with a sufficiently high corrosion resistance and a very high level of cutting edge retention of sharpness. This steel is much more expensive to produce than, for example, 12C27 or D2.

In terms of its characteristics, the steel is very strong, can withstand heavy loads and is fairly easy to sharpen. At the same time, this steel is almost stainless.

4.1.3. Crucible CPM 20CV Steel

CPM 20CV is a premium steel developed by Crucible USA that has a high level of wear resistance, corrosion resistance and strength. Combination of vanadium and chromium increases the steel capability of keeping any cutting edge profile types very well. The characteristics of this steel are very similar to Böhler M390 or Carpenter CTS-204P.

They use this steel in the production of knives and blades that need above all high hardness, sharpness and corrosion resistance. This steel will always be a good choice.

4.1.4. Böhler M390 Microclean Steel

Böhler M390 Microclean steel is a premium, powder stainless and a very popular and relatively young steel, which appeared after S60V but before Elmax, S90V, ZDP-189 or S30V were invented. However, they started to use this steel for knives manufacturing somewhat later.

This steel contains, among other alloying elements, a large amount of chromium and molybdenum, which provide high corrosion resistance. The carbon and vanadium content guarantees a very high level of cutting edge retention of sharpness.

Compared to Elmax steel, all parameters are slightly better. Equivalents from other manufacturers include steels such as CPM-20CV and CTS-204P.

If you need a knife with a blade that has a very high level of hardness, cutting performance and corrosion resistance, the M390 will be the best choice.

4.1.5. СPM-S90V Steel

When it comes to CPM-S90V steel, it is a stainless steel with vanadium and carbon as the main alloying elements which improve wear resistance and cutting edge retention of sharpness. CPM-S90V is one of the steels that are really difficult to sharpen, but once sharpened the blade edge will maintain the same sharpness level for quite some time.

4.1.6. SGP2 Steel

SGP2 steel is a product of the Japanese company Takefu. The hardness of this steel ranges from 62-65 HRC, it has a high carbon content, but is still a stainless steel. This steel has a much higher cutting performance than, for example, VG-10 b and they use it for high-end kitchen knives. However, strangely enough some manufacturers, despite its cost, use this steel for folding pocket knives and fixed outdoors knives.  

4.2. High-end steel

4.2.1. CTS-XHP Steel

Carpenter's CTS-XHP steel is a high-alloy powder steel with a high carbon and chromium content. Despite its rather simple composition, it has a rather high potential sharpness due to its very fine-grained structure. They use this steel for many purposes such as the production of kitchen knives or surgical instruments. The steel has pretty good corrosion resistance, cutting edge sharpness retention, and is easy to sharpen and polish, which makes it an excellent choice for EDC everyday knives.

4.2.2. CPM-S30V Steel

CPM-S30V steel was developed in 2001 and today they use it also for the production of premium cutlery. This steel is a martensitic compound of alloy steels with a very good combination of wear and corrosion resistance. This steel is significantly superior in its performance to such steels as 440C and D2 when hardened to a certain hardness level. In reality, it is quite hard, but it is also quite easy to sharpen.

4.3. Medium-level steel

4.3.1. Sandvik 14C28N Steel

The 14C28N steel from Swedish manufacturer Sandvik is considered to be a successor to the 13C26 grade. Here we can talk not only about a specific steel, but the whole family of steels. This steel grade is very often used for Kershaw pocket folding knives. It has a high corrosion resistance thanks to the addition of nitrogen to the alloy. This steel is also very sharp and easy to sharpen and hone. It is a very common and affordable steel.

4.3.2. N690Co Steel 

N690Co steel is a stainless chromium steel that contains cobalt, molybdenum and vanadium. This main areas of application of this steel are those that require high cutting properties and corrosion resistance. Knife blades made from such steel are very strong and durable. Due to the high chromium content, the knife blades are practically rust-proof even when exposed to moisture for a very long period of time. With all these properties, blades made from N690Co steel are quite easy to sharpen.

Knives made of this steel are well suited for tourism, survival, bushcraft, as well as kitchen, pocket and EDC knives.

4.3.3. VG-10 Steel

Basically, VG-10 steel has one distinguishing feature that has nothing to do directly with the steel itself. If you consider knives with this steel made by different Japanese manufacturers, you can always count on good or even very good blade quality.

On top of that, this steel is quite good at sharpening with Japanese water stones. Compared to N690, VG-10 has less corrosion resistance. Knives made by a Japanese manufacturer from this steel will always be a very good choice.

4.4. Budget steels

4.4.1. 440C Steel

440C steel can be called one of the most common knife steels of the late last century, but even now many knives are still made from this steel. The main properties of this steel are high corrosion resistance, strength and wear resistance.  Despite all its qualities and relative affordability, this alloy can rust if exposed to moisture for long periods of time. Due to the fact that there is no vanadium in the steel, it is less wear resistant than the others.

This one is used on low-cost pocket knives as well as entry-level EDC knives.

4.4.2. AUS-8 Steel

AUS-8 steel is a Japanese stainless alloy steel with chromium and high carbon content. This steel has a fairly good balance of corrosion resistance, sharpness and cutting edge sharpness retention. This steel exceeds the quality parameters of 440B and 440C steels. This steel is easy to sharpen and the cutting edge can be almost razor sharp, which makes it easy to handle for beginners.

Like 440C steel, this steel is often used for pocket, gentleman's and EDC knives.

5. Types of knives and the steels from which they are made

At the beginning of this article, we mentioned that before choosing a steel, you should properly understand the purpose of your knife and then select a steel that matches the purpose. You should also decide what profile among all existing profile types you want for your knife blade, for not every steel can retain the shape of the cutting edge at a certain angle.

If you expect to encounter significant side-impact loads and frequent use, it is better to use more ductile types of steel. For home use in the kitchen with mostly straight cuts and without hitting hard materials, you can use harder steel types with a high sharpness level.

If you still find it difficult to make a choice on your own, it will be better to seek advice from a master knife maker or a qualified specialist in a knife store. Otherwise, the quality of the steel depends on your willingness to pay the price for the knife.

6. Local manufacturers

In addition to all the physical and chemical properties of steels and a variety of knife prices, try to focus your attention on local steel and knife manufacturers, as they will have maximum experience with locally produced steel grades and will be able to guide you or provide you with the best choices. 

7. Conclusions

The knife steel is a very important part of the knife, however, it is still just a part. Any knife is an individual decision and it is wise to hold it in your hand before making a purchase. In this article, we have mentioned steels that have proved to be useful in one way or another.

Modern stainless steels offer high levels of sharpness and performance and are more comfortable to use than high-speed and other carbon steels.

You just have to choose between high sharpness and possible corrosion and just expensive steels that end up with a higher performance rate. On the other hand you will have a steel that has both high hardness and rust resistance, but will probably be slightly less productive, but also more affordable and practical. The main thing to remember is that choosing the best steel for a blade, or choosing a knife with a certain steel, is far from enough. The reason for this is quite obvious - the blade is just a part of the knife, but the right thing to do is to choose a knife with a certain steel suitable for your purposes.

8. Steels Chart

This chart is based on the information from different open access statistical tests and manufacturers' data and does not claim to be exclusively accurate, but displays only some average reference data, which can be treated as a kind of manual or guide to modern knife steels:

Steel

Wear
Resistance

Toughness

Corrosion
Resistance

Ease
Of
Sharpening

14C28N

5

6

4

5

440C

4

5

4

6

AUS-8

3

4

4

8

CPM-20CV

9

6

7

2

CPM-S30V

8

5

7

5

CPM-S90V

9

3

5

1

CTS-XHP

9

6

6

5

M390

9

6

7

3

N690

5

4

7

6

VG-10

5

4

7

6

ZDP-189

9

5

5

2

ELMAX

9

6

5

4

SGP2 / 3G

9

7

7

6

Summary table of steels

Steel

Country

C

Cr

MO

V

Co

Ni

Mn

SI

HRC

14C28N

Sweden

0,62

14,00

-

-

-

-

0,60

0,20

55-62

440C

USA

0,95-1,20

16,0-18,0

0,75

-

-

-

1,00

1,00

57-59

AUS-8

Japan

0,70-0,75

13,0-14,5

0,10-0,30

0,10-0,26

-

0,49

0,50

1,00

57-59

CPM-20CV

USA

1,90

20,00

1,00

4,00

-

-

0,30

0,30

59-62

CPM-S30V

USA

1,00

14,00

2,00

4,00

-

-

0,50

59-61

CPM-S90V

USA

1,35

14,00

1,00

9,00

-

-

0,50

0,50

56-58

CTS-XHP

USA

16,00

16,00

0,80

0,45

-

0,35

0,50

0,40

60-64

M390

Austria

1,90

20,00

1,00

4,00

-

-

0,30

0,70

60-62

N690

Austria

1,07

17,30

1,10

0,10

1,50

-

-

0,40

58-60

VG-10

Japan

0,95-1,05

14,5-15,5

0,90-1,20

0,10-0,30

1,30-1,50

-

0,50

-

59-61

ZDP-189

Japan

3,00

20,00

1,40

0,10

-

-

0,50

0,40

64-67

ELMAX

Austria

1,70

18.0

1.00

3.00

-

-

0.30

0.80

58-62

SGP2 / 3G

Japan

1,40

15,00

2,8

2,00

- -

0,40

0,50

62.00

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