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ACU NEXT Lab receives first patent


Dr. Rusty Towell is director of ACU's NEXT Lab.
Dr. Rusty Towell is director of ACU's NEXT Lab.


Abilene Christian University’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory, or NEXT Lab, has taken another step toward the reality of a molten salt research reactor with the approval of its first patent.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark office awarded ACU the patent for a high-temperature flow meter Aug. 5, 2020, after a three-year process of developing the idea and applying for the patent.

“We knew there was a need for this, and we had ideas, so we started exploring,” said Dr. Rusty Towell, professor of engineering and physics and NEXT Lab director. “You don’t have to have a fully functioning widget to patent the idea, so we started by applying for a provisional patent. We had tested some parts but not the whole, and during that next year we tested it in a more integrated way. That allowed us to strengthen our application, and that helped it go through in what I’m told is a faster-than-usual timeline. When you’ve done good work, and it’s a solid patent, it goes faster.”

The high-temperature flow meter will help monitor the flow of molten salt through a pipe at temperatures as high as 700 degrees Celsius. Most reactors use water to move heat, but the conversion of water to steam creates high pressure and safety concerns. One advantage of molten salt is its high boiling point, which allows the system to operate at safe low pressures. Due to that high temperature and corrosive nature of salt, a new way of monitoring flow had to be conceived – one that would exist outside the pipe, rather than inside it.

The official inventors are Dr. Tim Head, ACU professor of engineering and physics, and Towell. Students and faculty collaborated on designing, building and testing the prototype flow meter. In addition to the physics and engineering experience, the students involved learned about the patent process and the importance of documenting and protecting their ideas and their work.

A second NEXT Lab patent is in the provisional stage, and there are at least three other ideas that may be submitted for patents later, Towell said.

ACU 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.

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

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