In electronics, a transistor is a semiconductor device commonly used to amplify or switch electronic signals. The transistor is the fundamental building block of computers, and all other modern electronic devices. Some transistors are packaged individually but most are found in integrated circuits.
An electrical signal can be amplified by using a device that allows a small current or voltage to control the flow of a much larger current. Transistors are the basic devices providing control of this kind. Modern transistors are divided into two main categories: bipolar junction transistors (BJTs) and field effect transistors (FETs). Applying current in BJTs and voltage in FETs between the input and common terminals increases the conductivity between the common and output terminals, thereby controlling current flow between them. The characteristics of a transistor depend on its type.
The term "transistor" originally referred to the point contact type, which saw very limited commercial application, being replaced by the much more practical bipolar junction types in the early 1950s. Today's most widely used schematic symbol, like the term "transistor", originally referred to these long-obsolete devices.
In analog circuits, transistors are used in amplifiers, (direct current amplifiers, audio amplifiers, radio frequency amplifiers), and linear regulated power supplies. Transistors are also used in digital circuits where they function as electronic switches, but rarely as discrete devices, almost always being incorporated in monolithic Integrated Circuits. Digital circuits include logic gates, random access memory (RAM), microprocessors, and digital signal processors (DSPs).
The first patent for the field-effect transistor principle was filed in Canada by Austrian-Hungarian physicist Julius Edgar Lilienfeld on October 22, 1925, but Lilienfeld did not publish any research articles about his devices, and they were ignored by industry. In 1934 German physicist Dr. Oskar Heil patented another field-effect transistor. There is no direct evidence that these devices were built, but later work in the 1990s shows that one of Lilienfeld's designs worked as described and gave substantial gain. Legal papers from the Bell Labs patent show that Shockley and Pearson had built operational versions from Lilienfeld's patents, yet they never referenced this work in any of their later research papers or historical articles.
On 16 December 1947, William Shockley, John Bardeen, and Walter Brattain succeeded in building the first practical point-contact transistor at Bell Labs. This work followed from their war-time efforts to produce extremely pure germanium "crystal" mixer diodes, used in radar units as a frequency mixer element in microwave radar receivers. They made a demonstration to several of their colleagues and managers at Bell Labs on the afternoon of 23 December 1947, often given as the birth date of the transistor. A parallel project on germanium diodes at Purdue University succeeded in producing the good-quality germanium semiconducting crystals that were used at Bell Labs. Early tube-based technology did not switch fast enough for this role, leading the Bell team to use solid state diodes instead. With this knowledge in hand they turned to the design of a triode, but found this was not at all easy. Bardeen eventually developed a new branch of surface physics to account for the "odd" behavior they saw, and Bardeen and Brattain eventually succeeded in building a working device.
At the same time some European scientists were led by the idea of solid-state amplifiers. In August 1948 German physicists Herbert F. Mataré (1912– ) and Heinrich Welker (1912–1981), working in Aulnay-sous-Bois, France, for Compagnie des Freins et Signaux Westinghouse of Paris, applied for a patent on an amplifier based on the minority carrier injection process which they called the "transistron". Since Bell Labs did not make a public announcement of the transistor until June 1948, the transistron was considered to be independently developed. Mataré had first observed transconductance effects during the manufacture of germanium duodiodes for German radar equipment during WWII. Transistrons were commercially manufactured for the French telephone company and military, and in 1953 a solid-state radio receiver with four transistrons was demonstrated at the Düsseldorf Radio Fair.
Bell Telephone Laboratories needed a generic name for the new invention: "Semiconductor Triode", "Solid Triode", "Surface States Triode", "Crystal Triode" and "Iotatron" were all considered, but "transistor," coined by John R. Pierce, won an internal ballot. The rationale for the name is described in the following extract from the company's Technical Memorandum calling for votes:
Transistor. This is an abbreviated combination of the words "transconductance" or "transfer", and "varistor". The device logically belongs in the varistor family, and has the transconductance or transfer impedance of a device having gain, so that this combination is descriptive.— Bell Telephone Laboratories — Technical Memorandum (May 28, 1948)
Pierce recalled the naming somewhat differently:
The way I provided the name, was to think of what the device did. And at that time, it was supposed to be the dual of the vacuum tube. The vacuum tube had transconductance, so the transistor would have 'transresistance.' And the name should fit in with the names of other devices, such as varistor and thermistor. And. . . I suggested the name 'transistor.'— John R. Pierce, interviewed for PBS show "Transistorized!"
Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics "for their researches on semiconductors and their discovery of the transistor effect". Bardeen would go on to win a second Nobel in physics, one of only two people to receive more than one in the same discipline, for his work on the exploration of superconductivity.
The commercial uses of germanium transistors were limited by their sensitivity to temperature and humidity. Silicon, a semiconductor with crystal structure identical to germanium, looked promising but attempts over several years to make useful transistors were unsuccessful. In early 1954, M. Tanenbaum et al. (Jl. of Applied Physics, 26, 686 (1955)) at Bell Labs made a high performance silicon transistor using npn junctions produced by growth rate fluctuations during crystal growing. A few months later, working independently at Texas Instruments, G. Teal (unpublished) made similar devices using sequential doping.
While these devices had much superior temperature and environmental properties compared to gemanium transistors, the doping processes were difficult to control. That problem was solved by Tanenbaum and Fuller (Bell Sys. Tech. Jl., 35, 1 (1956)) using gas diffusion techniques to produce npn silicon transistors. The resulting diffused base silicon transistor was the subject of the second Bell Labs symposium. The diffusion process was easy to control, quickly adopted by the semiconductor industry and was the basis for the later invention of the integrated circuit initiating the "silicon age".
The transistor is considered by many to be the greatest invention of the twentieth century. It is the key active component in practically all modern electronics. Its importance in today's society rests on its ability to be mass produced using a highly automated process (fabrication) that achieves astonishingly low per-transistor costs.
Although several companies each produce over a billion individually-packaged (known as discrete) transistors every year , the vast majority of transistors produced are in integrated circuits (often abbreviated as IC and also called microchips or simply chips) along with diodes, resistors, capacitors and other electronic components to produce complete electronic circuits. A logic gate consists of about twenty transistors whereas an advanced microprocessor, as of 2006, can use as many as 1.7 billion transistors (MOSFETs).  "About 60 million transistors were built this year  ... for [each] man, woman, and child on Earth." 
The transistor's low cost, flexibility and reliability have made it a universal device for non-mechanical tasks, such as digital computing. Transistorized mechatronics circuits have replaced electromechanical devices for the control of appliances and machinery as well. It is often easier and cheaper to use a standard microcontroller and write a computer program to carry out a control function than to design an equivalent mechanical control function.
Because of the low cost of transistors and hence digital computers, there is a trend to digitize information, such as the Internet Archive. With digital computers offering the ability to quickly find, sort and process digital information, more and more effort has been put into making information digital. As a result, today, much media data is delivered in digital form, finally being converted and presented in analog form to the user. Areas influenced by the Digital Revolution include television, radio, and newspapers.
Comparison with vacuum tubes
Prior to the development of transistors, vacuum (electron) tubes (or in the UK "thermionic valves" or just "valves") were the main active components in electronic equipment.
The key advantages that have allowed transistors to replace their vacuum tube predecessors in most applications are:
- Small size and minimal weight, allowing the development of miniaturized electronic devices.
- Highly automated manufacturing processes, resulting in low per-unit cost.
- Lower possible operating voltages, making transistors suitable for small, battery-powered applications.
- No warm-up period for cathode heaters required after power application.
- Lower power dissipation and generally greater energy efficiency.
- Higher reliability and greater physical ruggedness.
- Extremely long life. Some transistorized devices produced more than 30 years ago are still in service.
- Complementary devices available, facilitating the design of complementary-symmetry circuits, something not possible with vacuum tubes.
- Though in most transistors the junctions have different doping levels and geometry, some allow bidirectional current
- Ability to control very large currents, as much as several hundred amperes.
- Insensitivity to mechanical shock and vibration, thus avoiding the problem of microphonics in audio applications.
- More sensitive than the hot and macroscopic tubes
- Silicon transistors do not operate at voltages higher than about 1 kV, SiC go to 3 kV.
- The electron mobility is higher in a vacuum, so that high power, high frequency operation is easier in tubes.
Transistors are categorized by:
- Semiconductor material : germanium, silicon, gallium arsenide, silicon carbide, etc.
- Structure: BJT, JFET, IGFET (MOSFET), IGBT, "other types"
- Polarity: NPN, PNP (BJTs); N-channel, P-channel (FETs)
- Maximum power rating: low, medium, high
- Maximum operating frequency: low, medium, high, radio frequency (RF), microwave (The maximum effective frequency of a transistor is denoted by the term '"`UNIQ--postMath-00000001-QINU`"', an abbreviation for "frequency of transition". The frequency of transition is the frequency at which the transistor yields unity gain).
- Application: switch, general purpose, audio, high voltage, super-beta, matched pair
- Physical packaging: through hole metal, through hole plastic, surface mount, ball grid array, power modules
- Amplification factor hfe (transistor beta)
Thus, a particular transistor may be described as: silicon, surface mount, BJT, NPN, low power, high frequency switch.
Bipolar junction transistor
The bipolar junction transistor (BJT) was the first type of transistor to be mass-produced. Bipolar transistors are so named because they conduct by using both majority and minority carriers. The three terminals of the BJT are named emitter, base and collector. Two p-n junctions exist inside a BJT: the base/emitter junction and base/collector junction. "The [BJT] is useful in amplifiers because the currents at the emitter and collector are controllable by the relatively small base current." In an NPN transistor operating in the active region, the emitter-base junction is forward biased, and electrons are injected into the base region. Because the base is narrow, most of these electrons will diffuse into the reverse-biased base-collector junction and be swept into the collector; perhaps one-hundredth of the electrons will recombine in the base, which is the dominant mechanism in the base current. By controlling the number of electrons that can leave the base, the number of electrons entering the collector can be controlled.
Unlike the FET, the BJT is a low–input-impedance device. Also, as the base–emitter voltage ('"`UNIQ--postMath-00000002-QINU`"') is increased the base–emitter current and hence the collector–emitter current ('"`UNIQ--postMath-00000003-QINU`"') increase exponentially according to the Shockley diode model and the Ebers-Moll model. Because of this exponential relationship, the BJT has a higher transconductance than the FET.
Bipolar transistors can be made to conduct by exposure to light, since absorption of photons in the base region generates a photocurrent that acts as a base current; the collector current is approximately beta times the photocurrent. Devices designed for this purpose have a transparent window in the package and are called phototransistors.
The field-effect transistor (FET), sometimes called a unipolar transistor, uses either electrons (in N-channel FET) or holes (in P-channel FET) for conduction. The four terminals of the FET are named source, gate, drain, and body (substrate). On most FETs, the body is connected to the source inside the package, and this will be assumed for the following description.
In FETs, the drain-to-source current flows via a conducting channel that connects the source region to the drain region. The conductivity is varied by the electric field that is produced when a voltage is applied between the gate and source terminals; hence the current flowing between the drain and source is controlled by the voltage applied between the gate and source. As the gate–source voltage ('"`UNIQ--postMath-00000004-QINU`"') is increased, the drain–source current ('"`UNIQ--postMath-00000005-QINU`"') increases exponentially for Vgs below threshold, and then at a roughly quadratic rate ('"`UNIQ--postMath-00000006-QINU`"') (where '"`UNIQ--postMath-00000007-QINU`"' is the threshold voltage at which drain current begins) in the "space-charge-limited" region above threshold. A quadratic behavior is not observed in modern devices, for example, at the 65nm technology node.
To turn on a transistor it has to be charged like a capacitor. One polarity of charge is responsible for conduction, the other serves for charge neutrality. In the BJT, both types of charge carriers come close together and so the capacitance is high, therefore only low voltages are needed to produce a given amount of charge. In a FET both types of charges are separated by the dielectric and additionally the Debye length, thus reducing the capacity and increasing the voltage needed for switching. Above zero Kelvin, the exponential curve is convoluted with the hard turn on of the BJT and the parabolic turn on of the FET.
For low noise at narrow bandwidth the higher input resistance of the FET is advantageous.
FETs are divided into two families: junction FET (JFET) and insulated gate FET (IGFET). The IGFET is more commonly known as metal–oxide–semiconductor FET (MOSFET), from their original construction as a layer of metal (the gate), a layer of oxide (the insulation), and a layer of semiconductor. Unlike IGFETs, the JFET gate forms a PN diode with the channel which lies between the source and drain. Functionally, this makes the N-channel JFET the solid state equivalent of the vacuum tube triode which, similarly, forms a diode between its grid and cathode. Also, both devices operate in the depletion mode, they both have a high input impedance, and they both conduct current under the control of an input voltage.
Metal–semiconductor FETs (MESFETs) are JFETs in which the reverse biased PN junction is replaced by a metal–semiconductor Schottky-junction. These, and the HEMTs (high electron mobility transistors, or HFETs), in which a two-dimensional electron gas with very high carrier mobility is used for charge transport, are especially suitable for use at very high frequencies (microwave frequencies; several GHz).
Unlike bipolar transistors, FETs do not inherently amplify a photocurrent. Nevertheless, there are ways to use them, especially JFETs, as light-sensitive devices, by exploiting the photocurrents in channel–gate or channel–body junctions.
FETs are further divided into depletion-mode and enhancement-mode types, depending on whether the channel is turned on or off with zero gate-to-source voltage. For enhancement mode, the channel is off at zero bias, and a gate potential can "enhance" the conduction. For depletion mode, the channel is on at zero bias, and a gate potential (of the opposite polarity) can "deplete" the channel, reducing conduction. For either mode, a more positive gate voltage corresponds to a higher current for N-channel devices and a lower current for P-channel devices. Nearly all JFETs are depletion-mode as the diode junctions would forward bias and conduct if they were enhancement mode devices; most IGFETs are enhancement-mode types.
Other transistor types
- Heterojunction bipolar transistor
- Alloy junction transistor
- Tetrode transistor
- Pentode transistor
- Surface barrier transistor
- Micro alloy transistor
- Micro alloy diffused transistor
- Drift-field transistor
- Unijunction transistors can be used as simple pulse generators. They comprise a main body of either P-type or N-type semiconductor with ohmic contacts at each end (terminals Base1 and Base2). A junction with the opposite semiconductor type is formed at a point along the length of the body for the third terminal (Emitter).
- Dual gate FETs have a single channel with two gates in cascode; a configuration that is optimized for high frequency amplifiers, mixers, and oscillators.
- Darlington transistors are two BJTs connected together to provide a high current gain equal to the product of the current gains of the two transistors.
- Insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBTs) use a medium power IGFET, similarly connected to a power BJT, to give a high input impedance. Power diodes are often connected between certain terminals depending on specific use. IGBTs are particularly suitable for heavy-duty industrial applications. The Asea Brown Boveri (ABB) 5SNA2400E170100 illustrates just how far power semiconductor technology has advanced. Intended for three-phase power supplies, this device houses three NPN IGBTs in a case measuring 38 by 140 by 190 mm and weighing 1.5 kg. Each IGBT is rated at 1,700 volts and can handle 2,400 amperes.
- Single-electron transistors (SET) consist of a gate island between two tunnelling junctions. The tunnelling current is controlled by a voltage applied to the gate through a capacitor. 
- Nanofluidic transistor Control the movement of ions through sub-microscopic, water-filled channels. Nanofluidic transistor, the basis of future chemical processors
- Trigate transistors (Prototype by Intel)
- Avalanche transistor
- Ballistic transistor
- Spin transistor Magnetically-sensitive
- Thin film transistor Used in LCD display.
- Floating-gate transistor Used for non-volatile storage.
- Photo transistor React to light
- Inverted-T field effect transistor
- Ion sensitive field effect transistor To measure ion concentrations in solution.
- FinFET The source/drain region forms fins on the silicon surface.
- FREDFET Fast-Reverse Epitaxial Diode Field-Effect Transistor
- EOSFET Electrolyte-Oxide-Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor (Neurochip)
- OFET Organic Field-Effect Transistor, in which the semiconductor is an organic compound
- DNAFET Deoxyribonucleic acid field-effect transistor
The first BJTs were made from germanium (Ge) and some high power types still are. Silicon (Si) types currently predominate but certain advanced microwave and high performance versions now employ the compound semiconductor material gallium arsenide (GaAs) and the semiconductor alloy silicon germanium (SiGe). Single element semiconductor material (Ge and Si) is described as elemental.
Rough parameters for the most common semiconductor materials used to make transistors are given in the table below; it must be noted that these parameters will vary with increase in temperature, electric field, impurity level, strain and various other factors:
V @ 25 °C
m²/(V·s) @ 25 °C
m²/(V·s) @ 25 °C
|Max. junction temp. |
|Ge||0.27||0.39||0.19||70 to 100|
|Si||0.71||0.14||0.05||150 to 200|
|GaAs||1.03||0.85||0.05||150 to 200|
|Al-Si junction||0.3||—||—||150 to 200|
The junction forward voltage is the voltage applied to the emitter-base junction of a BJT in order to make the base conduct a specified current. The current increases exponentially as the junction forward voltage is increased. The values given in the table are typical for a current of 1 mA (the same values apply to semiconductor diodes). The lower the junction forward voltage the better, as this means that less power is required to "drive" the transistor. The junction forward voltage for a given current decreases with increase in temperature. For a typical silicon junction the change is approximately −2.1 mV/°C.
The density of mobile carriers in the channel of a MOSFET is a function of the electric field forming the channel and of various other phenomena such as the impurity level in the channel. Some impurities, called dopants, are introduced deliberately in making a MOSFET, to control the MOSFET electrical behavior.
The electron mobility and hole mobility columns show the average speed that electrons and holes diffuse through the semiconductor material with an electric field of 1 volt per meter applied across the material. In general, the higher the electron mobility the faster the transistor. The table indicates that Ge is a better material than Si in this respect. However, Ge has four major shortcomings compared to silicon and gallium arsenide:
- its maximum temperature is limited
- it has relatively high leakage current
- it cannot withstand high voltages
- it is less suitable for fabricating integrated circuits
Because the electron mobility is higher than the hole mobility for all semiconductor materials, a given bipolar NPN transistor tends to be faster than an equivalent PNP transistor type. GaAs has the highest electron mobility of the three semiconductors. It is for this reason that GaAs is used in high frequency applications. A relatively recent FET development, the high electron mobility transistor (HEMT), has a heterostructure (junction between different semiconductor materials) of aluminium gallium arsenide (AlGaAs)-gallium arsenide (GaAs) which has double the electron mobility of a GaAs-metal barrier junction. Because of their high speed and low noise, HEMTs are used in satellite receivers working at frequencies around 12 GHz.
Max. junction temperature values represent a cross section taken from various manufacturers' data sheets. This temperature should not be exceeded or the transistor may be damaged.
Al-Si junction refers to the high-speed (aluminum-silicon) semiconductor-metal barrier diode, commonly known as a Schottky diode. This is included in the table because some silicon power IGFETs have a parasitic reverse Schottky diode formed between the source and drain as part of the fabrication process. This diode can be a nuisance, but sometimes it is used in the circuit.
Transistors come in many different packages (chip carriers) (see images). The two main categories are through-hole (or leaded), and surface-mount, also known as surface mount device (SMD). The ball grid array (BGA) is the latest surface mount package (currently only for large transistor arrays). It has solder "balls" on the underside in place of leads. Because they are smaller and have shorter interconnections, SMDs have better high frequency characteristics but lower power rating.
Transistor packages are made of glass, metal, ceramic or plastic. The package often dictates the power rating and frequency characteristics. Power transistors have large packages that can be clamped to heat sinks for enhanced cooling. Additionally, most power transistors have the collector or drain physically connected to the metal can/metal plate. At the other extreme, some surface-mount microwave transistors are as small as grains of sand.
Often a given transistor type is available in different packages. Transistor packages are mainly standardized, but the assignment of a transistor's functions to the terminals is not: different transistor types can assign different functions to the package's terminals. Even for the same transistor type the terminal assignment can vary (normally indicated by a suffix letter to the part number- i.e. BC212L and BC212K).
For a basic guide to the operation of transistors, see How a transistor works.
In the early days of transistor circuit design, the bipolar junction transistor, or BJT, was the most commonly used transistor. Even after MOSFETs became available, the BJT remained the transistor of choice for digital and analog circuits because of their ease of manufacture and speed. However, desirable properties of MOSFETs, such as their utility in low-power devices, have made them the ubiquitous choice for use in digital circuits and a very common choice for use in analog circuits.
From mobile phones to televisions, vast numbers of products include amplifiers for sound reproduction, radio transmission, and signal processing. The first discrete transistor audio amplifiers barely supplied a few hundred milliwatts, but power and audio fidelity gradually increased as better transistors became available and amplifier architecture evolved.
Transistors are commonly used in modern musical instrument amplifiers, in which circuits up to a few hundred watts are common and relatively cheap. Transistors have largely replaced valves (electron tubes) in instrument amplifiers. Some musical instrument amplifier manufacturers mix transistors and vacuum tubes in the same circuit, to utilize the inherent benefits of both devices.
The "first generation" of electronic computers used vacuum tubes, which generated large amounts of heat, were bulky, and were unreliable. The development of the transistor was key to computer miniaturization and reliability. The "second generation" of computers, through the late 1950s and 1960s featured boards filled with individual transistors and magnetic memory cores. Subsequently, transistors, other components, and their necessary wiring were integrated into a single, mass-manufactured component: the integrated circuit.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Transistors.|
- BBC: Building the digital age photo history of transistors
- Transistor Flow Control — Scientific American Magazine (October 2005)
- The Bell Systems Memorial on Transistors
- IEEE Virtual Museum, Let's Get Small: The Shrinking World of Microelectronics. All about the history of transistors and integrated circuits.
- Transistorized. Historical and technical information from the Public Broadcasting Service
- This Month in Physics History: November 17 to December 23 1947: Invention of the First Transistor. From the American Physical Society
- 50 Years of the Transistor. From Science Friday, December 12 1997
- Bob's Virtual Transistor Museum & History. Treasure trove of transistor history
- Jerry Russell's Transistor Cross Reference Database.
- The DatasheetArchive. Searchable database of transistor specifications and datasheets.
- Charts showing many characteristics and giving direct access to most datasheets for 2N, 2SA, 2SB. 2SC, 2SD, 2SH-K, and other numbers.
A wide range of transistors has been available since the 1960s and manufacturers continually introduce improved types. A few examples from the main families are noted below. Unless otherwise stated, all types are made from silicon semiconductor. Complementary pairs are shown as NPN/PNP or N/P channel. Links go to manufacturer datasheets, which are in PDF format. (On some datasheets the accuracy of the stated transistor category is a matter of debate.)
- 2N3904/2N3906, BC182/BC212 and BC546/BC556: Ubiquitous, BJT, general-purpose, low-power, complementary pairs. They have plastic cases and cost roughly ten cents U.S. in small quantities, making them popular with hobbyists.
- AF107: Germanium, 0.5 watt, 250 MHz PNP BJT.
- BFP183: Low power, 8 GHz microwave NPN BJT.
- LM394: "supermatch pair", with two NPN BJTs on a single substrate.
- 2N2219A/2N2905A: BJT, general purpose, medium power, complementary pair. With metal cases they are rated at about one watt.
- 2N3055/MJ2955: For years, the venerable NPN 2N3055 has been the "standard" power transistor. Its complement, the PNP MJ2955 arrived later. These 1 MHz, 15 A, 60 V, 115 W BJTs are used in audio power amplifiers, power supplies, and control.
- 2SC3281/2SA1302: Made by Toshiba, these BJTs have low-distortion characteristics and are used in high-power audio amplifiers. They have been widely counterfeited.
- BU508: NPN, 1500 V power BJT. Designed for television horizontal deflection, its high voltage capability also makes it suitable for use in ignition systems.
- MJ11012/MJ11015: 30 A, 120 V, 200 W, high power Darlington complementary pair BJTs. Used in audio amplifiers, control, and power switching.
- BSP296/BSP171: IGFET (enhancement mode), medium power, near complementary pair. Used for logic level conversion and driving power transistors in amplifiers.
- IRF3710/IRF5210: IGFET (enhancement mode), 40 A, 100 V, 200 W, near complementary pair. For high-power amplifiers and power switches, especially in automobiles.
Part numbers starting with "2S" are from Japan. Transistors with part numbers beginning with 2SA or 2SB are PNP BJTs. Transistors with part numbers beginning with 2SC or 2SD are NPN BJTs. Transistors with part numbers beginning with 2SJ are P-channel FETs (both JFETs and MOSFETs). Transistors with part numbers beginning with 2SK are N-channel FETs (both JFETs and MOSFETs).
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