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ACU celebrates grand opening of science, research facility


(L-R) Dr. Rusty Towell, director of NEXT Lab; Dr. Phil Schubert, president of ACU; Max Dillard; April Anthony, chair of ACU's Board of Trustees; Doug Robison, founder of Natura Resources; and Weldon Hurt, Abilene mayor, cutting the ribbon to celebrate the grand opening of ACU's Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center

The Gayle and Max Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center (SERC) – home of Abilene Christian University’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory and the future home of one of the first advanced reactors in the United States – opened on Friday with more than 300 people on hand to celebrate the occasion and tour the facility, including donors, government officials, and scientists from ACU and other research institutions.

“The Dillard Science and Engineering Research Center is a building unlike any other at ACU or on the campus of most universities across the nation,” said Dr. Phil Schubert (’91), ACU president, at the opening of the facility. “This 28,000-square-foot facility will allow students, especially undergraduates, to contribute to world-class research and groundbreaking technology in ways not available at most other universities. It also will bring scientists from other organizations and universities to Abilene to collaborate with our scientists and students in this unique space.”

The $23 million, 28,000-square-foot facility features a 6,000-square-foot research bay with a 25-foot-deep by 80-foot-long shielded trench and a 40-ton crane, as well as a training control room, conference room, office spaces, machine shop, and a series of specialized labs for radiochemistry, molten salt systems and instrumentation. A public foyer highlights the research within the facility.


A view from above of the research bay in the SERC

The SERC houses ACU’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing (NEXT) Lab, which has joined with Abilene-based Natura Resources to design, license and commission a molten salt-fueled research reactor. To support these efforts, Natura established the Natura Resources Research Alliance, which consists of ACU, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, and The University of Texas at Austin, supported by $30.5 million in sponsored research agreements. A construction permit application is under review with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Currently, NEXT Lab employs more than 75 people, including 45 undergraduate students.

“The success of your reactor will spark the imagination and provide inspiration to the world. The path you’ve chosen requires skill and dedication as the ACU research reactor is only the next step, not the end goal,” said Dr. David Holcomb, molten salt reactor technology leader at Idaho National Laboratory. “ACU has picked up the gauntlet in the creation of this science and engineering research center. Members of the Natura Resources Research Alliance have the responsibility and privilege of training the next generation of leaders.”

The new facility is made possible by the generosity of Gayle (Jenkins ’57) and Max Dillard. Max is a first-generation college student and second-generation oil man from Lueders, Texas. They went on to found D.I. Industries, which grew to become one of the largest publicly traded drilling companies in the United States, pioneering many engineering breakthroughs in drilling methods and advancement since 1978. Max currently serves as managing director of The Dillard Group of Texas LTD.


Members of the Dillard family with Dr. Phil Schubert (center)

This career allowed the Dillards opportunities to support others in research and scientific advancement, including supporting Gayle’s alma mater, where lifetime friendships were made. They provide engineering scholarships at ACU and also are the namesakes of Dillard Hall, the three-story venue a block west of campus housing about 170 students and providing living space for sophomore women at the university.

Max and Gayle’s three daughters – Denise (Dillard ’81) LaPosta, Pam (Dillard ’82) Minter and Julia (Dillard ’85) Hayashi – are ACU alumni, and three grandchildren have also attended Abilene Christian.

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