The recently opened Gayle & Max Dillard Science & Engineering Research Centre (SERC) at the US Abilene Christian University (ACU) in Texas, which includes the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory (NEXT Lab), is continuing to pursue research on molten salt reactors. “The Dillard Science and Engineering Research Centre is a building unlike any other at ACU or on the campus of most universities across the nation,” said Phil Schubert, 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 organisations and universities to Abilene to collaborate with our scientists and students in this unique space,” he noted

The $23m SERC features a 6,000-square-foot research bay with a 25-foot-deep by 80-foot-long shielded trench and a 40-tonne crane, as well as a training control room, conference room, office spaces and a machine shop. It also has a series of specialised labs for radiochemistry, molten salt systems and instrumentation.

SERC houses the NEXT Lab, which has joined with Abilene-based Natura Resources to design, license, and commission a molten salt–fuelled research reactor. To support these efforts, Natura established the Natura Resources Research Alliance, which comprises ACU, Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas–Austin, supported by $30.5 million in sponsored research agreements.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission is currently reviewing ACU's August 2022 application to construct a 1 MWt low-power molten salt research reactor – MSRR – at the NEXT Lab. A detailed design engineering contract has been awarded to Zachry Nuclear Engineering, part of Zachry Group. Natura Resources aims to deploy its first molten salt reactor system in the new facility by 2026, followed by larger factory-built modular reactors for commercial operations in the early 2030s.

“ACU has shown vision and is demonstrating leadership by pushing what has been a paper reactor class for more than 50 years back into reality,” said David Holcomb, molten salt reactor technology leader at Idaho National Laboratory, in his remarks at the opening event. “The success of your reactor will spark the imagination and provide inspiration to the world. ACU has picked up the gauntlet in the creation of this science and engineering research centre. Members of the Natura Resources Research Alliance have the responsibility and privilege of training the next generation of leaders, who I am confident will bring the great potential of this reactor class to fruition.”

The new facility is made possible by the generosity of Gayle and Max Dillard. Gayle attended ACU in the 1950s and then married Max, a first-generation college student and second-generation oil man from Lueders, Texas. They founded DI Industries, which became one of the largest US publicly traded drilling companies Max currently serves as managing director of The Dillard Group of Texas Ltd. This allowed the Dillards to support research and scientific advancement, as well as supporting ACU, where they. provide engineering scholarships.

Image: The Science & Engineering Research Centre at the US Abilene Christian University in Texas (courtesy of ACU)