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Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

For more information about our PhD program, please join us for one of our graduate admissions information sessions:

Grad Admission Info Session 1
Friday, Nov 20, 2020 
11 AM (US Central Time)
Presenters: Prof. Ying Diao, Prof. David Flaherty
Register here to receive Zoom link
Grad Admission Info Session 2
Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020
10 AM (US Central Time)
Presenters: Prof. Charles Sing, Prof. Ying Diao
Register here to receive Zoom link

Key Dates

Online applications can be accessed through the Graduate College website.

Applications will be reviewed on a continuous basis, and applicants are strongly encouraged to submit their complete applications by December 15, 2020. The final deadline is December 31, 2020. Applications that are incomplete after that date will not be considered.

*Note: The Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering does not admit students into the program with the intention of earning a terminal Master’s degree; however, students who have met the requirements may obtain a Master’s degree as a milestone on the path to completing their Ph.D. degree.

Applying to the Ph.D. Program

ChBE does not require GRE scores for admission

Students applying to the Ph.D. program in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering should have a baccalaureate degree from an accredited university, an exceptional academic record and three recommendation letters. International students are required to submit TOEFL/IELTS scores. Preferred applicants possess a grade point average of at least 3.5 on a 4.0 scale (4.0 is A).

Outstanding students with degrees in areas other than Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (such as Chemistry, Materials Science, Bioengineering, and Biomedical Engineering) are welcome to apply. Such students will be required to take additional courses as determined by the graduate program committee.

We seek to recruit a diverse group of highly-motivated graduate students; underrepresented students are strongly encouraged to apply. The university offers several diversity programs, including the Sloan Scholars program for doctoral students from underrepresented groups, which provides excellent mentoring and professional development opportunities.

Admission Procedure

1. Prospective graduate students apply to our program through the University of Illinois Graduate College website. On the Graduate Admissions page you will be asked to create an application account and fill out an electronic application. Please review the application instructions before contacting the department with general application questions.

2. Pay the application fee online to the Graduate College.

If eligible, request an application fee waiver through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation’s FreeApp program. The program is designed to increase access to graduate education for students who possess qualities and experiences that enhance the diversity of the intellectual, cultural, and social environments at CIC universities, including the University of Illinois. International applicants are not eligible for waivers.

3. Obtain three recommendation letters. Forms and instructions for submission are on the Graduate College website.

4. Upload unofficial transcripts to the Graduate College’s online application system. Upon acceptance, students should request their official transcripts be sent to the Graduate College before they begin the program.

For International Students

5. For all applicants whose native language is not English, please request that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) send your official TOEFL score to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The institution code is 1836. Department codes are not necessary for our school; you can fill in any number or leave it blank. As long as the institution code is correct, all departments to which you apply will be provided access to your test scores.

6. After you are accepted in our program, you may need to provide a Declaration and Certification of Finances form for your visa application through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) Office of the Graduate College’s Admissions Office.

7. All students will be required to teach three to four semesters as teaching assistants. If the Spoken English section of your TOEFL score is 23 or below, you are urged to retake this test prior to joining our program to meet the maximum score for teaching requirement.

Graduate Admissions FAQ’s


National Science Foundation funds collaborative effort to reimagine creation of chemicals and fuels

David Flaherty
David Flaherty of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

A $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help a team of scientists at the University of Illinois develop ways to use renewable energy to remediate carbon dioxide emissions and generate chemical building blocks and liquid fuels. 

The main idea of their proposal is to reimagine the manufacturing of chemicals and fuels as society shifts from using petroleum for these processes to renewable sources such as biomass and carbon dioxide. David Flaherty, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and Dow Chemical Faculty Scholar, said he and his colleagues have been laying the intellectual groundwork for this proposal over the past several years.

The team is comprised of five faculty members at the University of Illinois including Flaherty, Andrew Gewirth (chemistry), Paul Kenis (chemical and biomolecular engineering), Joaquín Rodríguez-López (chemistry), and Ashlynn Stillwell (civil and environmental engineering).

The team’s proposal was selected among hundreds of others in a rigorous review process for the grant through National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation Research Projects program. Their concept uses renewable energy that comes off the grid from solar or wind power to drive an electrochemical reactor that performs two useful reactions simultaneously.

First, they use one side of the reactor to reduce carbon dioxide to form molecules currently used to make durable goods such as plastics. This will reduce domestic greenhouse gas emissions. However, reducing carbon dioxide requires a large amount of energy, because these reactions are thermodynamically unfavorable, Flaherty said. The challenge here is turning a stable molecule such as carbon dioxide into a much less stable molecule, he said. 

“Another way to think about this is that we are trying to reverse the combustion process that is used to generate energy to move cars or produce electricity in power plants,” Flaherty said.

Second, the other side of the reactor partially oxidizes (or burns) renewable and abundant materials that are locally available. The energy captured from this process helps drive the reduction of carbon dioxide while the oxidation reaction produces useful chemicals. 

“We have to change our approach for making building block chemicals,” Flaherty said. “How do we manufacture chemicals and create fuels and energy that will support all the things we enjoy doing but doing it in a distributed manner that aligns with the location of emerging resources? We need to move away from these hundred-acre petroleum refineries and find solutions that work at smaller scales.”

Paul Kenis
Paul Kenis of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Kenis, the Elio E.Tarika Endowed Chair in Chemical Engineering, found a way to reduce carbon dioxide that would decrease the amount of renewable energy necessary for the process by up to 50 percent. He found that by coupling the carbon dioxide reduction with a more favorable type of chemistry on the other side of the reactor, the amount of energy necessary will greatly decrease.

“Electrolysis is seen as an option for industry to change over from the present plants to electrolysis processes,” Kenis said.

He added that, as part of the Paris Accord, the chemical industry is in an energy transition from 2020 to 2050 in which the dependency on fossil fuels and the associated carbon dioxide production must be decreased.

This is a win-win-win scenario, Flaherty said. If successful, they will efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions, produce renewable chemicals and fuels, and create new job opportunities for operators and engineers in an emerging distributive chemical manufacturing economy.

“We are going to learn so much from each other along the way,” Flaherty said. “We all have our own perspectives, our own expertise, and this is an awesome opportunity for us to tackle a critical challenge. In addition, this will be an excellent way for us to teach students a diverse set of skills they need to solve important societal problems.”

News Source

Samantha Boyle



Illinois engineers Kwiyong Kim, left, Professor Xiao Su, Johannes Elbert and Paola Baldaguez Medina are part of a team that developed a new polymer electrode device that can capture and destroy PFAS contaminants present in water. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

Researchers have demonstrated that they can attract, capture and destroy PFAS – a group of federally regulated substances found in everything from nonstick coatings to shampoo and nicknamed “the forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the natural environment.

Using a tunable copolymer electrode, engineers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign captured and destroyed perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances present in water using electrochemical reactions. The proof-of-concept study is the first to show that copolymers can drive electrochemical environmental applications, the researchers said.

The results of the study are published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.

“Exposure to PFAS has gained intense attention recently due to their widespread occurrence in natural bodies of water, contaminated soil and drinking water,” said Xiao Su, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who led the study in collaboration with civil and environmental engineering professors Yujie Men and Roland Cusick.

PFAS are typically present in low concentrations, and devices or methods designed to remove them must be highly selective toward them over other compounds found in natural waters, the researchers said. PFAS are electrically charged, held together by highly stable bonds, and are water-resistant, making them difficult to destroy using traditional waste-disposal methods.

“We have found a way to tune a copolymer electrode to attract and adsorb – or capture – PFAS from water,” Su said. “The process not only removes these dangerous contaminants, but also destroys them simultaneously using electrochemical reactions at the opposite electrode, making the overall system highly energy-efficient.”

To evaluate the method, the team used various water samples that included municipal wastewater, all spiked with either a low or moderate concentration of PFAS.

 “Within three hours of starting the electrochemical adsorption process in the lab, we saw a 93% reduction of PFAS concentration in the low concentration spiked samples and an 82.5% reduction with a moderate concentration spiked samples, which shows the system can be efficient for different contamination contexts – such as in drinking water or even chemical spills,” Su said.

Based on concepts first proposed in Su’s previous work with arsenic removal, the process combines the separation and reaction steps in one device. “This is an example of what we call processes intensification, which we believe is an important approach for addressing environmental concerns related to energy and water,” Su said.

The team plans to continue to work with various emerging contaminants, including endocrine disruptors. “We are also very interested in seeing how these basic copolymer concepts might work outside of environmental systems and help perform challenging chemical separations, such as drug purification in the pharmaceutical industry,” Su said.

Postdoctoral researcher Kwiyong Kim and graduate student Paola Baldaguez Medina are the lead authors of the study. Postdoctoral researchers Johannes Elbert and Emmanuel Kayiwa also contributed to the study.

The U. of I., the National Science Foundation and the Illinois Water Resources Center supported this study.

The paper “Molecular tuning of redox-copolymers for selective electrochemical remediation” is available online and from the U. of I. News Bureau. DOI: 10.1002/adfm.202004635.

Byungsoo Kim, left, and professor Hyunjoon Kong stand outdoors, socially distanced.
Postdoctoral researcher Byoungsoo Kim and professor Hyunjoon Kong led a team that developed an octopus-inspired device for transferring fragile, thin sheets of tissue or flexible electronics. Photo by L. Brian Stauffer

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thin tissue grafts and flexible electronics have a host of applications for wound healing, regenerative medicine and biosensing. A new device inspired by an octopus’s sucker rapidly transfers delicate tissue or electronic sheets to the patient, overcoming a key barrier to clinical application, according to researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and collaborators.

“For the last few decades, cell or tissue sheets have been increasingly used to treat injured or diseased tissues. A crucial aspect of tissue transplantation surgery, such as corneal tissue transplantation surgery, is surgical gripping and safe transplantation of soft tissues. However, handling these living substances remains a grand challenge because they are fragile and easily crumple when picking them up from the culture media,” said study leader Hyunjoon Kong, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Illinois.

Kong’s group, along with collaborators at Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Chung-Ang University in South Korea, and the Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology, published their work in the journal Science Advances.

Current methods of transferring the sheets involve growing them on a temperature-sensitive soft polymer that, once transferred, shrinks and releases the thin film. However, this process takes 30-60 minutes to transfer a single sheet, requires skilled technicians and runs the risk of tearing or wrinkling, Kong said.

“During surgery, surgeons must minimize the risk of damage to soft tissues and transplant quickly, without contamination. Also, transfer of ultrathin materials without wrinkle or damage is another crucial aspect,” Kong said.

Seeking a way to quickly pick up and release the thin, delicate sheets of cells or electronics without damaging them, the researchers turned to the animal kingdom for inspiration. Seeing the way an octopus or squid can pick up both wet and dry objects of all shapes with small pressure changes in their muscle-powered suction cups, rather than a sticky chemical adhesive, gave the researchers an idea.

They designed a manipulator made of a temperature-responsive layer of soft hydrogel attached to an electric heater. To pick up a thin sheet, the researchers gently heat the hydrogel to shrink it, then press it to the sheet and turn off the heat. The hydrogel expands slightly, creating suction with the soft tissue or flexible electronic film so it can be lifted and transferred. Then they gently place the thin film on the target and turn the heater back on, shrinking the hydrogel and releasing the sheet. 

The entire process takes about 10 seconds. See a video on YouTube.

Next, the researchers hope to integrate sensors into the manipulator, to further take advantage of their soft, bio-inspired design.

“For example, by integrating pressure sensors with the manipulator, it would be possible to monitor the deformation of target objects during contact and, in turn, adjust the suction force to a level at which materials retain their structural integrity and functionality,” Kong said. “By doing so, we can improve the safety and accuracy of handling these materials. In addition, we aim to examine therapeutic efficacy of cells and tissues transferred by the soft manipulator.”

The National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense Vision Research Program and the  Jump Applied Research in Community Health through Engineering and Simulation endowment supported this work.

Editor’s notes: To reach Hyunjoon Kong, call (217) 333-1178; email: 

The paper “Electrothermal soft manipulator enabling safe transport and handling of thin cell/tissue sheets and bioelectronic devices” is available online.

DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abc5630

A team led by Steven L. Miller Chair professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Huimin Zhao (BSD leader/CABBI/MMG) was awarded a five-year $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the NSF Artificial Intelligence (AI) Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy and Manufacturing (Molecule Maker Lab Institute or MMLI). The multi-institutional team also consists of researchers and collaborators from the Grainger College of Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and from University Laboratory High School, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Northwestern University, Penn State University, and Rochester Institute of Technology.

Professor Huimin Zhao, Steven L. Miller Chair of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, will lead the Molecule Maker Lab Institute with a multi-institutional team.

The MMLI focuses on development of new AI-enabled tools, such as AlphaSynthesis, to accelerate automated chemical synthesis and advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds. Researchers use the data generated from the analysis of these molecules to guide further development of synthesis planning and catalyst design tools using AI and machine learning. The institute also serves as a training ground for the next generation of scientists with combined expertise in AI, chemistry, and bioengineering.

“The MMLI is a first-of-its-kind research infrastructure that will have a powerful impact on the U.S. research community,” said Zhao. “This proposed infrastructure will respond to high-priority needs of communities seeking to 1) discover and optimize a wide range of molecular functions (Molecules), 2) harness the power of data to advance the science of molecular synthesis (Data), and 3) inspire a broad audience of scientists, teachers, students, and citizen scientists to participate in the process of molecular innovation (Open Door). The MMLI will revolutionize the way chemistry is taught and capture the imagination of a new generation of molecule makers.”

The NSF is establishing five new AI institutes to accelerate research, expand America’s workforce, and transform society in the decades to come. Enabled by sustained federal investment and channeled toward issues of national importance, continued advancement in AI research holds the potential for further economic impact and improvements in quality of life.

With an investment of over $100 million over the next five years, NSF’s AI Institutes represent the nation’s most significant federal investment in AI research and workforce development to date. The $20 million investment in each of five NSF AI institutes is just the beginning, with more institute announcements anticipated in the coming years.

“Recognizing the critical role of AI, NSF is investing in collaborative research and education hubs, such as the NSF MMLI anchored at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which will bring together academia, industry, and government to unearth profound discoveries and develop new capabilities advancing American competitiveness for decades to come,” said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “Just as prior NSF investments enabled the breakthroughs that have given rise to today’s AI revolution, the awards being announced today will drive discovery and innovation that will sustain American leadership and competitiveness in AI for decades to come.”
“Over the past decade there have been major advances in both AI and automated chemical and biochemical synthesis, making the timing for the launch of the MMLI both judicious and urgent,” said Zhao. “Synergistically integrating these powerful disciplines now has the potential to dramatically accelerate and advance the manufacturing and discovery of molecules with important functions that address major unsolved problems in society. Not doing so would result in a major missed opportunity for the U.S. research community.”

To learn more about the MMLI visit

Effective immediately, the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will no longer require the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) for admission to the graduate program. 

CHBE has joined myriad institutions of higher learning across the United States who, over the past several years, have deemed the examination unreliable in predicting the future success of students, based on a number of scientific studies by experts.

Main Quad facing Foellinger Auditorium at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with fall leaves on the trees and people walking

Professor Xiao Su has been selected as a 2020 Scialog Fellow AND The ACS Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry for the 2020 Viktor K. LaMer Award

Congratulations to Professor Xiao Su, who has been selected as a Scialog Fellow to participate in the 2020 Scialog: Negative Emissions Sicence (NES) Initiative, jointly sponsored by Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

The Scialog fellowship invites around 50 early career faculty to participate in the initiatives. This year’s negative emissions theme (NES) covers the pressing challenge of rapid-decarbonization of the global economy, and involves a multidisciplinary input from  chemistry, physics, materials science, biology, engineering, and geophysics.

Xiao joined the Illinois faculty in 2019, and has since built an exciting research program on exploring molecular engineering for electrochemical separations and process intensification. His group focuses on understanding the fundamental principles of redox-systems, and discovering new supramolecular interactions for achieving higher molecular selectivity in separation processes. Areas of application include fine chemical purification, water purification, and environmental remediation.

Xiao received his BASc in Chemical Engineering from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and earned his PhD in Chemical Engineering from MIT.

Link to Award:

The ACS Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry for the 2020 Viktor K. LaMer Award

Professor Xiao Su is also the winner of the 2020 ACS Viktor K. LaMer Award from the Division of Colloid and Surface Chemistry. The ACS LaMer Award recognizes an outstanding PhD thesis accepted by a U.S. or Canadian University during the three year prior the award year.

The official LaMer award lecture will be presented in the 2021 ACS Colloids and Surface Science meeting.

Link to Award Announcement:

Congratulations to Professor Charles Sing, who is being honored for his contributions to education and research. Professor Sing’s research focuses on problems in polymer physics. Professor Sing’s research informs the design of advanced materials for energy, biotechnology, consumer products, and medicine. Sing joined the University of Illinois in 2014.

Several professors have received named scholar positions from the College of LAS.

The named positions include the inaugural LAS Dean’s Distinguished Professorial Scholars, who are receiving $10,000 for teaching and research as they are promoted to full professor.

“These named scholars have been chosen for their energy, creativity, and potential in teaching and research in the College of LAS,” said Feng Sheng Hu, the Harry E. Preble Dean of the College of LAS. “They are incredible examples of the level of effort we apply to achieving academic excellence.”

Congratulations to University of Illinois juniors William Lyon and Sriyankari Chitti, who were awarded Barry M. Goldwater scholarships for their potential to contribute to the advancement of research in the natural sciences, mathematics or engineering.

The Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Goldwater, who served 30 years in the U.S. Senate. The program encourages the continued development of highly qualified scientists, mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to sophomores and juniors from the U.S. who intend to pursue doctorates. The scholarship provides recipients $7,500 for tuition, fees, books or room and board.

This year’s 396 scholars were selected from among the 1,343 mathematics, science and engineering students nominated by the faculties of colleges and universities nationwide. “Each school can only nominate four students for this highly esteemed award, so we are proud that half of our nominees earned national recognition for their work,” said David Schug, the director of the National and International Scholarships Program at Illinois. “With the high caliber of our STEM students, just being nominated from Illinois is a big deal.”

Lyon, of Lake Forest, Illinois, and a graduate of Northridge Preparatory School, is studying chemical and biomolecular engineering with interests in the field of organometallic chemistry. He plans to earn a Ph.D. in organic chemistry to contribute to research that will streamline the drug-discovery process.

At Illinois, Lyon earned the Donald Othmer Sophomore Academic Excellence Award from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers as the top sophomore (among 150) in his department. He has earned authorship on a published manuscript for his research contributions in the lab of chemical engineering professor Huimin Zhao and has spent the past year researching organic synthesis and transition metal catalysis to develop novel cross-coupling reactions via C-H activation with Lycan Professor of Chemistry M. Christina White.

Lyon also is a member of the James Scholar Honors program at Illinois.

from left: Sriyankari Chitti and William Lyon, University of Illinois students who received Barry Goldwater Scholarships in 2020.

Chitti, of Marlboro, New Jersey, began conducting research at Rutgers University while attending the Medical Sciences Magnet Program at Freehold High School. As a freshman in the Division of General Studies at Illinois, she began working with chemistry professor Martin Burke on developing an iterative method for synthesizing three dimensionally enriched small molecules and has continued researching in this lab. This work inspired her to major in chemistry.

A first-generation American, Chitti has successfully written grants to fund her research, been invited to present her work nationally and received multiple awards for her various poster presentations, including a national outstanding poster award. She is also a recipient of the American Chemical Society Division of Organic Chemistry SURF, a national summer fellowship awarded to undergraduates pursuing organic chemistry research at their home institution.

Chitti has completed four graduate chemistry courses since her sophomore year of college. She also mentors fellow undergraduates in her lab and across campus. As an aspiring future professor, Chitti hopes to develop new methodologies to synthesize drug molecules more efficiently, contributing to the fields of organic chemistry and medicine.

Congratulations to Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering PhD students who have been selected to receive fellowships from the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. They include Paola Baldaguez Medina, Vasiliki “Aliki” Kolliopoulos, and Chris Torres.

The NSF program recognizes and supports individuals early in their graduate training in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields. The aim is to help ensure the vitality and diversity of the scientific and engineering workforce in the U.S. The program provides three years of support for students who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM or STEM education.

ChBE PhD students who were selected for 2020 National Science Founation Graduate Research Program
NSF fellowship recipients (from left) Paola Baldaguez Medina, Vasiliki “Aliki” Kolliopoulos, and Chris Torres

Baldaguez Medina completed her undergraduate education at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez in 2019. While there, she conducted research in separation processes with Professor Hernández-Maldonado and spectroscopy with Professor Hernández-Rivera. She also had internships at the University of Minnesota through the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program working on block-copolymers, and at the University of Florida with Professor Rinaldi on rheology studies.

A member of Assistant Professor Xiao Su’s research group at the University of Illinois, her work focuses on developing water remediation techniques via electrochemical mediated systems for the removal of anthropogenic organic contaminants of concern. She uses redox-polymers electrodes for pollutant binding through electrosorption. Developing an electrochemical separation method could impact society in numerous ways by providing energy effective and modular technologies for water purification, Baldaguez Medina said.

Kolliopoulos is a member of Professor Brendan Harley’s lab, which has been developing advances in tissue engineering. Craniofacial bone defects are common in the context of congenital, traumatic, and post-oncologic conditions. Such bone defects are often large in size and heal poorly, motivating regenerative medicine efforts. A particular barrier to regenerative healing is the significant immune and inflammatory response post injury which can inhibit cell recruitment, vascular remodeling, and new tissue biosynthesis. The Harley lab is developing a class of mineralized collagen biomaterials capable of meeting a wide range of design requirements for successful deployment into CMF bone defects, notably the ability to conformally fit complex defect geometries and support stem cell osteogenesis.

Kolliopoulos said she aims to understand the effect of scaffold biophysical properties (microstructure, stiffness, alignment, mineral morphology) on the recruitment and subsequent activation status of macrophages. Her ultimate goal is to demonstrate biomaterials capable of modulating the kinetics of the macrophage response post injury as a means to accelerate implant integration and subsequent bone regeneration. She completed her undergraduate studies at The Ohio State University. In 2018, while working in the Carlos Castro Lab, she received an honorable mention for the NSF GRFP for her work on DNA Origami.

Torres is a member of Associate Professor David Flaherty’s research group. He studies the catalytic role of solid-liquid interfaces and extended solvent networks for liquid-phase oxidation reactions. His research goal is to create design rules for catalysts which reduce the environmental impact of chemical industries. He completed his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico.

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