A thin volume of Galileo’s 1610 landmark treatise The Starry Messenger sits on a bookshelf at oil and gas executive Doug Robison’s Abilene home. Within its pages, the famous astronomer, who turned his telescope to the stars to provide firsthand observation that ours is a sun-centered solar system and not an Earth-centered one, describes his shift in understanding of the universe: “I went from doubt to astonishment.”
That phrase captures the reaction of many people when they hear about the research being conducted at Abilene Christian University’s NEXT Lab – from “this is too good to be true” to “this is amazing,” says Robison, whose Natura Resources has entered into a $30.5 million sponsored research agreement with the lab to experiment with molten salt as a coolant for nuclear reactors with the goal of building a research reactor at ACU.
The NEXT Lab, or Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Lab, is working to address the world’s most critical needs of affordable and clean energy, pure and abundant water, and medical isotopes for diagnosing and treating cancer. The use of molten salt as a coolant mitigates much of the safety risk of traditional water-cooled nuclear reactors while producing usable byproducts such as clean water and radioactive isotopes used for medical imaging and treatment.
Galileo was not the first to propose that the planets circled the sun, nor was NEXT Lab’s director Dr. Rusty Towell (’90) the first to propose molten salt as a new generation reactor coolant. But each overcame obstacles to bring those concepts to life.
“Galileo was re-proving something that had already been postulated before, which is really very similar to the NEXT project in that a molten salt reactor had previously been proposed and built in the ’60s at Oakridge Laboratory and ran for four or five years,” Robison said. In Galileo’s case, “things that were taken as a matter of faith, such as the sun circling the earth, were proved otherwise. The promise of NEXT Lab’s impact is so overwhelming in really multiple ways that you almost have to go from doubt to astonishment,” he added.
For Robison, the leap to embrace NEXT Lab was not so great, because a lifetime career in oil and gas production had allowed him to witness firsthand how new technology could transform an entire industry. His own exploration and production company, ExL Petroleum, was at the forefront of the hydraulic fracturing revolution that took place in the Permian Basin in the early 2000s.
“That change in hydraulic fracturing technology is what led to our country being energy independent. That was a game changer in so many ways,” he said. “It’s easy for me to make these jumps because I’ve already jumped them before.”
When Robison first became acquainted with the molten salt research led by Towell, he made a $3.2 million donation to NEXT Lab through his nonprofit Excelsior Foundation. Later, he formed Natura Resources LLC and committed to investing an additional $30.5 million in the project, with $21.5 million of that going to ACU and the remainder going to three other universities in a research consortium led by ACU and dubbed NEXTRA (NEXT Research Alliance). The other consortium members are Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin.
The future of energy
A third-generation oilman, Robison is a 1979 graduate of the Texas Tech School of Law and is partner, co-founder, president and executive chair of ExL Petroleum. He serves on ACU’s Board of Trustees and the President’s Venture Council and is chair of the oversight committee for NEXT Lab. He and his wife, Angie, moved from Midland to Abilene in 2019. Through the Excelsior Foundation, they are supporters of a number of local nonprofits organization, including The Grace Museum, Paramount Theatre, Abilene Cultural Affairs Council, Big Country CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for children in foster care, and opportunity camps for underprivileged children.
In 2004, he was appointed by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Texas Energy Planning Council. His term as co-chair of the Energy Supply Committee with Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson convinced him that nuclear energy was a viable and the only logical replacement for hydrocarbons as an energy source for the future.
In this Q&A, he talks about a range of topics including the future of energy, why he was willing to invest in NEXT research, and his brief encounter with a 2008 reality TV show called “Black Gold.”
How did you first hear about NEXT Lab and what attracted you to the project?
In Fall 2018, Angie and I were attending a President’s Venture Council meeting on the ACU campus. Dr. Towell made a 15-minute presentation on the NEXT Lab. I actually cornered him in the back of the room when he was leaving and asked him, “If you were fully funded, what could you do?” And he said, “What?” And I said, “If you were fully funded, what would your research look like?” We got together two weeks later, and he told me what he thought they could do. And I said, “You’re funded, let’s go.” That’s when I made the initial pledge through my Excelsior Foundation of $3.2 million. And one thing led to another.
The backdrop to that is I didn’t just hear this and think, “Wow that sounds cool, I think I’ll throw a lot of money at it.” I have an oil and gas exploration and production company in Midland that was at the forefront of the hydraulic fracturing revolution in the Permian Basin. Additionally, Gov. Perry appointed me to the Texas Energy Planning Council in 2004. I chaired the Energy Supply Committee for that and held hearings around the state for 12 months on how to maximize energy production. We had several major findings. One was that hydrocarbons – that’s oil, gas, natural gas and coal – were going to be the mainstay of energy for the foreseeable future. The renewables – wind and solar – were just not going to be able to carry that load. And the only technology that existed to replace hydrocarbons was nuclear. That was 2004.
So when Dr. Towell presented on nuclear, and not just nuclear but next-generation nuclear, I latched on to it immediately because I had been working on things like this for close to 20 years. It was very easy for me to see the potential and importance of this technology, knowing that we have to at some point move on to the next form of energy production. Non-renewables are nonrenewable for a reason. There’s a finite supply. Our current nuclear is a great source of energy, but there are issues with it. This technology solves all of those issues. That’s what got me excited about it and made it easy for me to make that leap. I saw the fulfillment of some things I had been working on for well over a decade.
You were involved as a donor through your Excelsior Foundation before you became an investor through Natura Resources LLC. How and why did that transition come about?
As the NEXT Lab progressed rapidly – and I believe success can breed success –we had a fully funded research project. The next thing we know we have senior leadership from the U.S. Department of Energy visiting the lab, and then we end up in D.C. in multiple meetings with the DOE there, and initial meetings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The next thing we know – with full support of the Department of Energy, we are working toward building a research reactor.
So the question came: How are we going to do this? I was asked to do the research on what that looked like. I hired some law firms specializing in that area, and they pointed us toward sponsored research. As a result, I formed Natura Resources, which is a for-profit entity to be the funding instrument for the research. Right now Natura Resources has a $30.5 million sponsored research agreement with individual grants with the four consortium universities; $20.5 million of that is with ACU. On top of that, Natura has a project management agreement with ACU that provides for the design, licensing and construction of the reactor itself. So Natura is funding all the research. I should note that Natura has a $3.5 million grant with The University of Texas. That’s the largest research grant they’ve ever had in their nuclear engineering energy department – and UT is a big school. ACU’s is $20.5 million – six times the size of that. So ACU has gone from hardly any sponsored research to this huge amount of sponsored research. ACU president Dr. Phil Schubert (’91), Dr. Towell and others are really guiding ACU through rapid change in this area.
Why are you willing to make such a considerable investment in NEXT Lab research and the use of molten salt?
Money is a tool. We have time, talent and treasure, and we’re going to spend those accordingly – maybe for good, maybe for bad – but we’re going to use them for something. And I couldn’t think of many other things that could have as much impact for good. You look at not just the culture at Abilene Christian but also its mission statement. I’m not a graduate of ACU nor is my wife. But I love the mission statement and what ACU and Dr. Schubert and his leadership team are doing. And then you take this technology that really has the potential – the probability – of making major improvements in the world in energy, nuclear medicine and desalinization of water. These are all huge issues. So for me, if I’m going to spend money, if I’m going to deploy capital, why not use it for something that’s going to really make a difference?
What does ACU stand to gain most through its NEXTRA consortium with Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and Texas?
Two of these universities have university research reactors, which is what this is going to be. We visited Texas A&M’s reactor and UT’s reactor. Then at Georgia Tech, Dr. Steven Biegalski, who is part of the research team, ran the UT reactor for years before Georgia Tech hired him away. So these three universities all have decades of experience in this area. They’re all old technology but still they’re reactors. Georgia Tech, Texas A&M and UT all bring huge experience in nuclear but also they bring doctoral students, post-doc researchers and so forth who are very valuable to the research. ACU has primarily been an undergraduate research university, although they’re moving, particularly in STEM, to additional advanced degrees. What’s been really interesting to me is you have three very large universities that are experienced in working with research reactors, and all of them are perfectly happy to let ACU take the lead. I think a lot of that has to do with the leadership Dr. Schubert and Dr. Towell and others have provided from the beginning. It’s an incredibly effective partnership, and when we’re in front of the U.S. Department of Energy or the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or whomever and we mention these four universities, people pay attention. There’s a lot of strength in that partnership.
What have you learned through a career in the oil and gas industry that drives your interest in renewable energy projects?
Several things. Energy is important, obviously. If we don’t have energy, we sit in the dark and we freeze to death. I’ve always been proud of what we’ve produced. We’ve allowed people to live indoors in a modern society. ExL Petroleum, my oil and gas company, was at the forefront of hydraulic fracturing. We revolutionized the oil and gas industry, not just domestically but internationally. That was a technological change and what led to our country being energy independent – that’s huge. We had new ways of doing things that had never been done before, and it changed everything. So I understand, having lived it and breathed it, what new technology can do – the shift in paradigms that happen. This NEXT technology, this molten salt technology, is busting all kinds of paradigms.
How do you see NEXT Lab benefiting students? Researchers? Investors?
The other three universities are using mostly graduate and post-grad student researchers, while at ACU we’re having undergraduate students working on the equivalent of the moon shot. Actually, that’s what the professors at the other universities called this: a moon shot. They never thought they’d be able to work on something like this in their career, and ACU faculty say the same thing. For an undergraduate student, you’re getting to participate and work on groundbreaking technology that a lot of scientists can go their whole career and never touch anything like it. And not only do the researchers get to participate in a moon shot, there are the opportunities that come with new technology – there are patents and intellectual property. It’s got to be exciting for a researcher to do something that’s never been done before.
An investor by nature of the word is someone who puts money into something thinking they’re going to get a return. For ACU alumni, there’s a chance to bring incredible benefit to the university to help fulfill its mission statement and propel ACU to the next level of research, to see it become a center of this type of research in the country, and [play a part in] what it gives to its students and faculty. There’s also a chance to make money, and I don’t apologize for that. It is something if you invest in, I think you feel good about because of what we do. I’m talking a lot about energy, but the nuclear medicine part of it and desalinization – all of those things apply.
What are the major challenges and opportunities you see facing NEXT Lab in the next few years?
The primary challenge is we have to get a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build a research reactor, and I think it’s been close to 30 years since the last time we built one in this country. It’s not an easy hill to climb. I think this being at a university has some advantages. I think the consortium of the four universities brings a lot of benefit to it.
The meetings with the NRC to this point have been incredibly positive. I think we’re on the fast track. I think that will present incredible opportunities for ACU and the other universities and for Natura in picking and choosing wisely what to do and, maybe as importantly, what not to do – whom to partner with and whom not to partner with – those are all going to be challenges or opportunities.
Another challenge is going to be the perception this is too good to be true. Convincing people that, no, this is true – you have to go from doubt to astonishment, as Galileo said.
What professional accomplishment has given you the most satisfaction, and what personal accomplishment?
No one thing stands out professionally. I handled oil and gas issues in Texas and in D.C. I would often be called to Austin either by legislators or by railroad commissioners or the governor’s office to handle a particular issue because I had a reputation of being able to come in and find common ground. Once I got a call from the Bush White House to come help mediate an issue there with the EPA, which we successfully did. That was fun. I’m not a lobbyist, never have been one. I was just working as a member of industry, if you will, that had some reputation down there for being able to find consensus and do it in a way that everybody walked away feeling good about it.
I also got satisfaction from what the work at ExL did in the hydraulic fracturing technology. That obviously was a huge deal, not just to the oil and gas industry but to the country.
As far as personal accomplishments, we’ve got a great family and I’m proud of the way they are leading their lives. My wife and I started dating in high school, so we’ve been hanging around each other for a long time. I have two kids and six grandkids.
Also, I’m the board chair of China Aid Association, which is the world’s expert on religious persecution and human rights violations inside China among all different faiths. I’ve done that for close to 20 years. That’s actually the reason I started my oil and gas company, quite frankly, so I could have control of my calendar and spend as much time as possible working with the underground church there.
It’s been an incredible experience. China Aid has rescued numerous people out of persecution in China. We’ve sponsored refugees here in the United States. We’ve held international religious freedom forums, two in Taiwan. We’ve brought in parliamentarians and religious leaders from all over the world. That’s an incredibly significant work to be involved in. Persecution has increased dramatically there, especially under the current regime. People I’ve worked with have disappeared or been killed or imprisoned. It can be kind of sobering to be involved in that, but it’s amazing to be around those believers.
You were in several episodes of a reality TV show, “Black Gold,” in 2008. What was that experience like and were there any interesting moments or takeaways?
Black Gold was originally going to be a documentary – it’s the group that did Deadliest Catch, I think, and they wanted to do one about the oil and gas industry. It was going to be about me and another guy – kind of a good guy, bad guy thing. We were in a depressed time of the industry right then, and they couldn’t find anybody that had rigs running besides us and another company. So they kind of scripted this show around the idea we were racing the other, which we weren’t at all. I think the other company was in a different county completely. But that’s how they styled it. I had met with the producers of the show several times because of my work in Austin. I was trying to get people past their understanding of the oil and gas industry as fictional TV characters like Jed Clampett and J.R. Ewing. For the first three weeks they stayed on that theme, and then in the fourth week it became basically what I call “roughnecks gone wild.” In the beginning episodes, it was the No. 1 show of the season and then it just cratered. They asked me if I would do a second season. I declined. That was our flash. It was kind of fun, but we were glad when it was over.
What does the future of energy look like to you?
Globally – without paying attention to what happens here and there and in D.C. – I think the energy industry as a whole is moving from natural gas to nuclear. We are going to have to make that move eventually. That industry quit innovating in the ’70s. It is time we get serious about our next generation of nuclear energy. The energy of the future is going to be nuclear. It will be renewable. It’s going to be less emission or zero emission. And it’s going to be deployable, meaning you can deploy the energy where it’s needed as opposed to transmitting the power across the country.
— Robin Saylor
Jan. 11, 2021