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NEXT Lab to lead $30.5 million research collaboration


Undergraduate students research alongside faculty physicists, engineers and chemists on the molten salt test loop at Abilene Christian University’s NEXT Lab. Photo by Jeremy Enlow / Steel Shutter Photography

Abilene Christian University and Abilene-based Natura Resources LLC are partnering in a $30.5 million effort to design and license a research reactor in collaboration with three other major universities. Natura will provide $21.5 million to ACU over the next three years, the largest sponsored research agreement in the university’s history.

ACU’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory, or NEXT Lab, is leading NEXTRA – the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Research Alliance – among four universities with extensive experience in physics and engineering. Launched in Spring 2019, the consortium’s goal is to design, license and commission the first university-based molten salt research reactor, which ACU will host and own.

Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin are the other three consortium members. Natura’s funding commitment to them accounts for $9 million of the overall agreement.

“We are incredibly pleased and honored to sponsor this remarkable multi-disciplinary collaboration of talented researchers – physicists, engineers, chemists and their students – to support our vision to develop advanced energy systems that are inherently safe, sustainable and environmentally friendly,” said Dr. Tony Hill, Natura director of product development.

Research led by ACU’s NEXT Lab continues to gain visibility with support from the U.S. Department of Energy and key stakeholders in the local community and across the region.

“The groundbreaking research that Abilene Christian is poised to continue regarding nuclear energy has incredible potential,” said Texas Sen. Dawn Buckingham. “Partnerships such as these will help keep our state and nation on the cutting edge, and I am proud to support such efforts.”

The NEXT Lab is dedicated to finding real-world solutions to some of the world’s most critical needs, including:

  • Safer, cleaner and less expensive energy
  • Pure and abundant water
  • Medical isotopes for diagnosing and treating cancer

A molten salt research reactor (MSRR) using liquid fuel as opposed to solid fuel is the first step to achieving those outcomes.

“The ACU-led construction of a research reactor will establish NEXT Lab as the world leader in molten salt reactor research,” said Dr. Rusty Towell, professor of engineering and physics at ACU and director of the lab. “This alliance with Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Texas gives our students in physics, engineering and chemistry an unprecedented opportunity to continue contributing to world-changing technology.”

Abilene Christian’s Department of Engineering and Physics has nearly four decades of experience in national laboratories such as Brookhaven, Fermi and Los Alamos, where its undergraduate students have the rare opportunity to work alongside their professors and other physicists from around the globe. Some of the top discoveries in physics in recent years were made possible by important contributions to testing and research by ACU faculty, undergrads and alumni.

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