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Designing and Prototyping a Water Purification System for Cambodia

Christian Loring, Neel Patel, Jeffrey Wang, Jack McLaughlin

College of Engineering, School of Engineering Design, EDSGN 100
The Pennsylvania State University

Abstract. We were tasked with designing a water filtration system for a country that is
experiencing issues regarding the quality of their water. Our customer, the town of Suong,
Cambodia, has a very limited access to resources, which we had to keep in mind when creating a
solution. So, we designed and prototyped a water filter that addressed the unacceptable quality of
Cambodias water and the deficiencies in the water supply, which is also designed with their
poor economy in mind. Our product is cheap to produce and maintain, as it makes use of local
resources, and doesnt require electricity. Additionally, it has been proven to be easily
understandable and operable, even for someone who has never used the device before. The filter
gets rid of chemical toxins and also kills biological parasites, while also removing particles
within the water, allowing the end consumer to drink it with assurance that they will not become

I. Introduction

Suong is a small city in eastern Cambodia with approximately 24,000 residents. The main source
of income in the town is through farming and raising livestock [1]. Suong, Cambodia is ten miles
from the nearest river so most drinking and cleaning water has to be gathered from rainfall.
Many people would be led to believe that residents of Suong actually have plenty of clean water
because of this abundant rainfall; during the wettest month of the year, October, the area gets just
under 13 inches of rain on average [2].

However, many of these residents face challenges in acquiring water suitable for drinking,
cleaning, and farming consistently throughout the year, and so nearly 45% of Cambodians do not
have access to clean water [3]. This is partly due to stagnant rainwater, which can host
water-borne illnesses such as Cholera. The water only has to be clean enough so that the
biological contaminants are removed, as well as most chemical toxins, so as to not make the
consumers ill. As it stands, the biggest problem that contaminated water consumption causes is
diarrhea, which can be caused by parasites or bacteria that reside in the water [4]. It is the second
leading cause of death in Cambodian children under the age of five [3].

One of the problems surrounding water security that Cambodia faces is a shortage, of the which
is compounded by the governments lack of urgency toward addressing the issue. Chinas
dam-building upstream along the Mekong River, which runs right through Cambodia to supply
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its residents with water, is another cause for the shortage. This activity has cause droughts in
Cambodia as well as many of the other countries downstream, including Laos and Myanmar [5].
This is especially impactful on Cambodias water supply, since they rely only on rainfall and
underground water deposits as their primary source. Moreover, the Cambodian government has
placed increasing the water supply lower on their list of priorities; instead, they are focusing on
developing other areas of infrastructure and the economy, like trade and urban development [5].
In fact, the percentage of the amount of clean water supply provided has been on a decline since
1999, as the population grows and the governments investment decreases [6].

Even if Cambodians had an adequate supply of freshwater, there would remain another problem
facing their water supply as well. This is because the water they currently use for drinking,
cleaning, cooking, and farming is not considered clean by ethical standards, as they cause health
issues for the people who use it. This is caused by a number of factors, some which are easily
preventable, while others are harder to avoid.

One of those that can be prevented is the fact that people throw trash on the ground and in the
water, which results in a number of toxins being released into the ground [7]. The water is then
either directly polluted by these toxins, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density
polyethylene (HDPE), due to the trash sitting in the water source, or from runoff which carries
these pollutants into more water sources [8]. One of the unavoidable problems would be the
yearly rainy season, in which monsoons bring heavy rainfall into the country. Many of the
cement structures constructed have also been built to take advantage of this clean rainfall, as they
collect the water as it falls. This allows inhabitants to draw from this water source for clean
water. Nevertheless, these structures cannot, obviously, collect all of the rainfall that
accumulates, and so the flooding creates large pools of stagnant water [7]. These pools will
eventually get contaminated, but the villagers still draw from them, since that is sometimes their
only source of water, clean or otherwise [6]. Plus, the absence of adequate sanitation systems
adds to the contamination of the no-longer-clean water [9].

If the donation system is used to supply residents of Suong and other provinces with clean water,
there will be little to no development in the areas of water treatment. This lack of advancement
will necessitate the constant and frequent need to resupply when existing supplies run low; not
only is this inefficient, it is not sustainable, and does not assure a certain supply, as the donors
can cease giving to them at any point. Therefore, the residents of Suong must be able to
independently purify their scarce and dirty supply of water, especially for as long as their
sanitation systems are primitive at best, and as long as people continue to litter.

There are several ways that this can be facilitated, and one of them is through utilization of the
biosand filters that Water for Cambodia, an organization that constructs and implements filters in

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Cambodian villages, has created. These rid the water of gravel and sand particles, in addition to
substantial amounts of bacteria, protozoa, and iron, by taking advantage of biological organisms
that reside inside the filters [10]. Furthermore, there are a myriad of other methods of cleaning
the water, including but not limited to using UV light, carbon filters, oxygen purification drops,
or distillation [11]. All methods vary in price, feasibility given available resources, and
effectiveness, however, so choosing the right one for Cambodias water problems will require
adequate thought.

II. Research/Design Methodology

In order to create an effective design, the actual need of the customer is of absolute importance.
If these needs are not taken into consideration, it is possible to create a design that has no use for
the people it is intended to help. With this in mind, when creating a design, the focus was placed
on creating a purification system capable of purifying water with the limited resources that are
available in Cambodia. That is, we were tasked with making a filtration setup that accepted the
polluted water as an input and yielded clean water as the output. It was essential to create a
purification system that solved the water problems Cambodia faces in a way that it would also be
feasible for those living there to utilize, purchase, and maintain.

The problem that needed to be solved in Cambodia was how to purify their water, which had
very specific and unique problems with it, as well as more common contaminants. These issues
consisted of chemicals affecting the groundwater, biological contaminants such as bacteria and
parasites, and particulates in the water such as dirt, sand, and mosquitos. However, there are no
established standards on what safe levels of particle contaminants are, such as the number of
mosquitos that are safe for the water. Likewise, this is also the case with plastics, as people litter
water bottles and grocery bags, which lessens the quality of their drinking water by an
immeasurable amount. Therefore, we had to use a matter of judgement to figure out what we
thought was an acceptable amount of mosquitos, or how much plastic is acceptable to be sitting
in the water. We decided there should not be any particulates or bacteria, as the particulates like
sand can affect the taste and texture of the water. With respect to the bacteria, even a small
amount can cause severe illness, so we chose to get rid of all bacteria.

We explored alternate existing solutions to this problem of filtering water, such as a wastewater
treatment plant that is so prevalent in most developed nations. On the other hand, less developed
nations such as Cambodia, and many nations in Africa, do not have access to these expensive
and complex facilities to treat their water. Many residents of these developing nations can, at
best, boil their water to rid it of pollutants. Though that is sometimes an option, these people
often do not even put the effort in to boil it, as they take the common problems associated with
dirty water, such as diarrhea, to be completely normal. We knew that the Cambodians would not

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be able to construct treatment facilities similar to those in developed countries like the U.S. and
many of the European nations, because of the costs and education needed to build them and keep
them operating. Consequently, we realized there must be some combination of basic filtration
techniques that would treat their water to a certain extent.

In order to generate ideas, many resources were pulled together. Ideas varied from water
purification plants to utilizing easily acquired resources such as activated charcoal, sand and
gravel. Other ideas included adding chlorine and iodine, boiling the water to distill it, using only
cotton to filter particulates, using UV light to kill living organisms, and reverse osmosis. These
ideas were considered at first in order to find different solutions that are either feasible or
effective in addressing the problem. From there, it was possible to determine what was or was
not a viable option through viewing the available resources necessary to maintain and operate
whatever system that would be implemented. Moreover, a new perspective was gained through
generating purposefully bad ideas. At a glance this may seem pointless, but it allows
outside-the-box thinking to figure out what is truly outside the realm of possibility and what
would just require some creativity and critical thinking. Afterward, having both a perspective on
what does and what does not work, concepts were generated which implementing different
combinations of the ideas stated previously.

Once we generated several concepts, we compared them to each other using a design matrix and
several criteria that we ranked and weighted based on the customer needs. They included simply
boiling the water, using a layered gravel, sand, and activated charcoal filter, combining that
layered filter with a method to add chlorine and iodine for further cleansing, and using the
layered system with a distiller to boil the water. Once we put these concepts through a decision
matrix, it became apparent that a couple were better at addressing the problem, but came at a
higher cost, whereas the others were not as effective in cleaning the water, but would have been
cheaper. For example, the concept that used chlorine and iodine to filter the water was more
effective, but was not very feasible, as the Cambodians will not have those resources readily
available. On the other hand, the concept that consisted of the layered filter with boiling
capabilities was more feasible but less effective in getting the pollutants out of the water.

To decide on a design, we used the analytic hierarchy matrix pictured below, in which we
weighed different criteria that we believed our concept should abide by; afterward, we used these
results to determine which concept would best fit each category, and finally settled on a design to
construct our prototype (Figure 1).

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Figure 1. This is the analytic hierarchy matrix in which we placed 6 criteria that we thought should be
considered when choosing a design to follow through with for our prototype. As shown, cost and
feasibility were the two main factors in deciding which concept we went with, whereas portability of the
purifier was almost negligible. This is because we believed the customers could keep the filtration system
inside of their home, and did not need to take the entire thing with them. Instead, they can fill a bottle
with water for when they travel.

We figured that if we took the layered design, we realized that making the system modular
would make it simple enough for the short run; if it had drawers, the layers would be
interchangeable, and more could also be added if necessary, so it was able to develop along with
the country. For instance, if the chemicals became more widely available, another drawer with a
layer of chlorine or iodine could be added so that the water quality would increase. More about
the prototype is discussed in the next section.

After constructing the prototype, we had to see if it would live up to the expectations of being a
feasible design for our Cambodian customers. Rather than make an entire system, we built a
small portion of it, which can be extruded to allow for more drawers to be added. Thus, we
constructed singular drawer of the modular design, which would give us test results for how the

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actual filter would work. Of course, if one of the individual modules performed well, we would
be able to conclude that multiple will do the same, as the entire system would be a pattern of the
same single module.

The main purpose, or our objective, for building the prototype was to observe and determine how
simple our design was to operate. We wanted to see if people could figure out how to operate it
without instruction, and how long it would take them to do so. In order to test this, we went
around to other students and the TA, as well as Professor McTernan. Our metric was the time it
takes someone to change the filter in our prototype, in units of seconds. Our pass/fail criteria was
whether or not that person could change the filter within 60 seconds. Below are the results,
which turned out much better than expected (Figure 2).

Time Spent on Changing Pass (<60 seconds)/Fail (>60

Filter (seconds) seconds)

9.63 Pass

8.61 Pass

9.35 Pass

10.51 Pass

14.49 Pass

13.18 Pass

7.66 Pass

13.34 Pass

6.69 Pass

11.75 Pass

15.39 Pass

13.02 Pass

14.81 Pass
Figure 2. This table shows the trials of 13 random people, who were tasked with changing the filter for
our system. The fastest time to change the filter came in at under 7 seconds, while even the slowest was
still fast relative to the pass/fail criteria: just over 15 seconds. Needless to say, no one who tried changing
the filter failed based on our criteria.

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The participants were not told that it was a contest to see who could change it in the least amount
of time, since it really was not, so they did not feel any pressure to hurry. Doing so would have
distorted the results, since an everyday user in Cambodia would not be inclined to rush to change
the filter. We used a flat piece of styrofoam with dimensions of 6x6 as the filter, which would
be representative of a cloth packet containing the actual filtering materials like sand or gravel. A
few of the test subjects informed us that they were inclined to simply slip the new filter through
the small slit present in the front of the prototype, which is something that we will change in the
final product, and will be discussed in further detail in the next section. Regardless, they all
agreed that the design concept was easy to grasp and well executed.

This leads into the feedback from a sales pitch conducted to get feedback about the design of the
prototype. The first thing that was noted was the fact that three or four people to whom the
design was pitched to stated that they thought the idea was simple yet effective in its application.
They were referring to the modular drawers, and their ease of operation. One thing we were
asked was which materials would be used to construct the product. To make it feasible for
Cambodians, we decided that it would be constructed using bamboo, as it is a material that is
available throughout the country in vast quantities, and grows rapidly, which means it is
sustainable, both of which are aspects of our design that were taken into consideration. The
material is also water resistant, more so than hardwoods such as hickory or walnut. Furthermore,
this information was used to address another question that was brought up; this was regarding if
the product could directly collect rainwater as it falls. We realized that because of bamboos
relatively high water-resistance, the product could be placed directly under the precipitation, to
filter the water directly, with a storage unit such as a bucket that can be placed underneath it to
hold the clean water. Lastly, someone asked about the rate at which the water filters, which we
determined was about a third of the rate at which the water is poured into the purification system.
This data was acquired when we tested various methods of filtration in an experiment during
class. Because the product is to be used in a household, this is not a setback, as consumers can
begin filtering the water at the start of the day and store it in containers for use throughout the

III. Results and Discussion

After deliberate idea generation and a substantial concept selection process which consisted of
comparing the multiple designs discussed earlier, we selected the design that we believed would
best address the problem of purifying the water of Suong, Cambodia. Shown below is the
prototype, a simple cube-like structure made with corrugated cardboard (Figure 3).

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Figure 3. Shown here is our prototype for the water purification system we designed for Suong,
Cambodia. All components are constructed with corrugated cardboard, as that was the material that was
readily available. We were also able to work with it very quickly, as the material worked almost as
quickly as we thought, which gave us a speedy path to experience, thus following two of the three rules
for prototyping as discussed by Tom Chi in his TED Talk about Google Glass and prototyping [12].

Each component is held together with hot glue. However, the drawer and the parent structure are
independent of one another. Instead of being glued together, which would prevent access to the
contents inside the drawer, we utilized a sliding rail system. This was fashioned with the use of
nails that are connected to the drawer (Figure 4). The nails suspend the drawer within the main
frame, and allow it to slide along the slits (Figure 5).

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Figure 4. This image of an individual drawer shows the simple design. The two pairs of nails that extend
out from either side of the drawer allow it to remain vertically stationary when resting in the main body of
the purifier. They allow for a smooth removal of the drawer by the user when the filters must be replaced.
The nail heads prevent the drawer from shifting around the slot by keeping it positioned snug against the
inside face of the structures main body.

Figure 5. As seen in this picture of the prototype, we cut a slit on both sides of the box, which ensure that
the nails attached to the drawer can rest on and slide along the body. They are positioned 1.5 from the
back of the structure, and act also as a stop to prevent the drawer from sliding out from the rear. The
openings of the rails are wider than a majority of their length, so that the user does not have to struggle to
match the small slit with the nails; instead, they simply place the nails onto the wider areas and push
backward, which automatically aligns and slides the nails along them to correctly position the drawer.
We added a small funnel component on top to facilitate the pouring of water into the purification
system, shown below (Figure 6). This is a small feature that may be taken for granted, but by
including it, pouring the water will require less precision, because the user will not have to about
spilling the water onto the surrounding surfaces.

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Figure 6. Here is the funnel component of the prototype, which is attached to the top face of the main
body. It allows the user to pour water over a larger area without worrying about how the water will end up
in the smaller hole cut out of the face. Also, less water will fall outside of the system than would had the
funnel not been constructed.

In place of a cloth with small pores, which would allow only water pass through by leaving all
particulates trapped, we improvised in our prototype by implementing a sheet of bubble wrap
and made holes in it with thin nails (Figure 7).

Figure 7. This is the bubble wrap that acts in the prototype as a permeable cloth would in the final design.

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Based on our metric of the time that it takes to change the filter inside the drawer in units of
seconds, where it passes if the user is able to change it in under 60 seconds, as outlined in the
previous section, our prototype was a success. Of the thirteen people we asked to test it, all of
them passed, so we decided that our prototype as a whole passes overall, in that it addresses the
problem of purifying Cambodias contaminated water. It does so to a degree of efficiency and
feasibility that makes it a good solution to the problem, while also being cost-effective, as the
materials used to produce it are not only cheap and available, but also sustainable.

The modular drawer system that we used was acknowledged by about half of our test subjects as
simple yet efficient in solving the problem. The rail system consisting of the nails and slits on the
sides of frame was effective in allowing the users to rapidly remove and replace the drawer in
order to change the filter. This fulfills our goal of making sure that anybody who uses the system
is able to do so in under a minute, without struggling.

For the future, we are seeking to be able to construct an improved version of the prototypes by
fixing minor issues. These include making the structure out of bamboo and plastic, as would be
done for the final design, and creating a sturdier rail system to prevent the drawer from getting
stuck as it is pulled out, which can be done by making a single rail for each side out of the
bamboo, rather than two separate ones with nails. This can be done by matching the shape of the
slots to that of the rails, thus ensuring a snug fit. Further, that alteration would make it even
easier for the user to remove and replace the modular drawer. Consequently, the users would not
have to worry about the nails getting rusty and leaking other chemicals or diseases into the water,
like Tetanus. Additionally, we would make a taller version of the system that would let us add
more rails for more drawers and visually analyze the modular nature of the design. With this
larger version, we would block off the open areas currently existing on the front of the prototype,
as can be seen below (Figure 8).

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Figure 8. As can be seen in the image of the front of our prototype, there is some space above and below
the drawer component. After he changed the filter as part of the process of testing our metric, Professor
McTernan pointed out that those gaps should be filled in so the user is not compelled to simply slip the
filter through them without extracting the older filter. This is something we will take into consideration
for further revisions of the design of the prototype.

Moreover, we will consider adding a modular storage container that would be placed at the
bottom, with the other modules attached on top of that. Then, a heat source could be added in
order to boil the water to further improve the quality of the water. Finally, if possible, we would
like to take a few of the finished products into Suong, Cambodia so that we can observe it in
action and search for flaws that were not apparent before the implementation. This small-scale
study would let us refine the product before producing it on a larger scale.

IV. Conclusions

Our group was tasked with designing and testing a water purification system for the town of
Suong, Cambodia, which faces problems regarding their water supply and the quality of
whatever water they do have. The problems of water supply stem from the fact that rainwater is
their main source of freshwater. This is compounded by the fact that the government is not
focused on increasing that supply for the Cambodians, and the water that they do have is
contaminated with pollutants such as polyethylene terephthalate and they also have mosquitos in

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their water. However, they do not have the funds or resources to build water treatment plants, so
we must find alternate solutions.

That being said, the customers in emerging markets do not always recognize that they have a
need for a certain commodity, in this case a water purification system. Therefore, we had to find
the needs based on the current issues they face, such as childhood deaths due to diarrhea caused
by water contamination. In designing a solution to address the water problems, we had to first
figure out what our customer needs were; so, we did research on Suong before starting to create a
design, and found that our customer needed a solution that was cheap and could be made with
resources found locally.

We then began researching possible solutions to this problem that already existed in order to
determine if any of those methods was feasible. We came across a variety of ways in which
water could be treated, and each had its own benefits and drawbacks. For example, one of the
solutions that would get rid of bacterial parasites and biological infestations in the water was to
shine UV light on it. However, we eliminated this method as electricity in the nation is not
widely available, and since UV light requires a source of electricity to operate, it was not a viable
option. On the other hand, an option that we considered was boiling the water. This could be
done with fire, and would not be very expensive, but it also would not get rid of chemical toxins
like BPA or particulates within the water. Additionally, we did some in class experimentation
with a filter that involved layers of sand, gravel, and activated charcoal, and realized that this
method was relatively cheap compared to building a more complex treatment plant, but was also
better than leaving the water be, because as it stands, Cambodians get poisoned from drinking
the dirty water and which leads to diseases like diarrhea.

Thus, we moved onto the idea generation and concept selection processes to choose a design for
a prototype we would later build. To come up with novel ideas, we combined aspects of existing
treatment techniques together to form new ideas, including a layered filtration system with
chlorine and iodine and a system that would distill the water. Then, to determine which idea we
would use to construct our prototype, we ranked each of them using several weighted criteria:
cost, production feasibility, resulting water quality, storage capabilities, rate of flow, and
portability. The design we settled with was a modular drawer system in which each drawer was a
layer of the filter; for instance, one layer would be gravel, one layer would be activated charcoal,
and so on, until all materials that would help clear the water were included. This is also why we
stuck with a modular design, as it would allow for a few filter materials for the short run, like
sand and charcoal, while providing the customer with the option of expansion if more resources
like chlorine become more affordable or available.

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Next, we began constructing a prototype using corrugated cardboard and hot glue. The result was
a box-like structure with a drawer that was representative of a single layer of the modular design.
That drawer implemented a sliding rail system which was made by cutting a slit on both sides of
the frame, and attaching nails to the side of the drawer itself; this allowed the drawer to slide in
and out of the frame for easy replacement of the filtering materials inside.

Once the physical build was completed, we needed to test it to ensure that it worked as planned,
and more importantly, that it worked in a way that was efficient yet simple to understand for
even for the uneducated. The reason for this is that in Cambodia, males and females between 15
and 24 years of age have the highest literacy rates in the country, at 88% and 86%, respectively
[13]. We decided that the prototype would pass our test if the metric, the time it takes for the user
to change an old filter inside the product and replace it with a new one, was completed in under
60 seconds. On that account, we asked random people in our class and those who were passing in
the hall if they could do that. Nevertheless, they were not told to rush, yet all 13 participants
finished the task between 6 and 16 seconds. This assured us that our prototype was definitely a

Our peers also gave us feedback regarding the design of the prototype, and everyone had good
things to say about it, like it was easy to operate and the modularity was efficient, though several
gave critical responses at the same time. One of these was the fact that because there was some
open space above and below the drawer where the filter resides, someone who has never
operated the product may be inclined to slip the new filter directly through the slot without first
removing the used one. This means that in future designs and prototypes, we would reduce the
size of those spaces and cover up open areas. Also, we would make subsequent prototypes with
bamboo, as this is a resource that is available to our customer for little cost, and is also
sustainable since it grows rapidly.

Lastly, although the first prototype was a success based on our metric and the customer needs,
there are minor flaws that can be addressed to further improve the quality of the product. As a
result, the water that the filtration system purifies would be of enhanced quality; the residents of
Suong, Cambodia would then no longer have to face the problems that exist today surrounding
their water, like chronic diarrhea. The standard of living of these Cambodians would improve in
that aspect, which would render our product a true success.

V. References

[1] T. Brinkhoff. (2014, October 12). City Population: Suong [Online]. Available:

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[2] CantyMedia, (2017, February). Suong, Cambodia: Climate Summary [Online]. Available:
[3] R. Vandenbrink. (2014, March 21). Nearly Half of Cambodians Lack Access to Safe Water
[Online]. Available:
[4] Mayo Clinic. (2016, October 25). Diarrhea: Symptoms and Causes [Online]. Available:
[5] L. Abrams. (2003, June). Mekong River Basin [Online]. Available:
[6] WEPA. (2015). State of Water Environmental Issues: Cambodia [Online]. Available:
[7] O. Boudinot. (2015, March 18). Water in Crisis - Cambodia [Online]. Available:
[8] L. Schwartz. (2016, March 22). Toxic Traps: When These 7 Types of Plastic Are
Dangerous [Online]. Available:
[9] WaterAid America. (2016). Cambodia [Online]. Available:
[10] Water for Cambodia. (2017). Our Biosand Filters [Online]. Available:
[11] D. Williams. (2016). Seven Ways to Purify Water [Online]. Available:
[12] T. Chi. (2013, January 22). Rapid Prototyping Google Glass [Online]. Available:
[13] UNICEF. (2013). Statistics: Cambodia [Online]. Available:

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