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NEXT Lab advances reliable nuclear energy


Undergraduate students research nuclear energy in the NEXT Lab. NEXT Lab plans to design, license and commission the first university-based molten salt research reactor, a technology that offers solutions to a number of energy challenges.

Jeremy Enlow

Energy and electricity topics are dominating conversations in Texas after residents spent a week battling a major winter storm. Abilene Christian University, along with two other Texas universities, is at the forefront of advancing nuclear technology to address problems plaguing traditional energy sources – including unpredictable weather.

Nuclear is the most dependable form of electricity production in the U.S., according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Averaged over 2019, nuclear plants stayed online consistently, providing power 93.5% of the time. Hydrocarbon power plants were operational about half the time. Wind or solar plants only worked about two days each week. When extreme winter conditions arrived, nuclear power remained constant. 

“Wind can fail due to not enough or too much wind or, as we saw recently, ice on the blades,” said Dr. Rusty Towell, professor of engineering and physics and director of ACU’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Laboratory. “Solar isn’t available when it’s cloudy or at night. Fossil fuels depend on large volumes and can fail if the supply isn’t secure.” 

However, Towell said, nuclear energy is fueled for years at a time and is less affected by the weather – particularly the type of advanced nuclear technology being developed at ACU, which can be designed without the need for cooling water.

ACU’s NEXT Lab is leading the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Research Alliance (NEXTRA) with Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin. All four universities have 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. The research is sponsored by Natura Resources LLC, which has committed $30.5 million to the project. 

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. NEXT Lab has secured the first patent – for a high-temperature flow meter – and has a second patent in the provisional stage plus several others in the early stages. NEXT Lab has had a series of public meetings with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission preparing for the submission of a reactor construction permit later this year. 

Lab work on ACU’s campus continues with the construction of the second salt loop called the Fluoride Molten Salt Test Loop, the development of a Salt Purification System, the commissioning of the Molten Salt Filter System, and the secondgeneration Chemical Analysis System. 

— Wendy Kilmer

Mar. 1, 2021

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