Four universities team up to design molten salt research reactor

August 21, 2020, 12:11PMNuclear News

Undergraduate students work on the molten salt test loop at Abilene Christian University’s NEXT Lab. Photo: Jeremy Enlow/Steel Shutter Photography

Abilene Christian University (ACU) is leading a consortium called NEXTRA—the Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Research Alliance—with the Georgia Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, and the University of Texas at Austin. NEXTRA was formed in spring 2019 to design, license, and commission a molten salt–fueled research reactor to be hosted on ACU’s campus in the central Texas city of Abilene. ACU and its partners recently announced funding of $30.5 million over the next three years from Abilene-based Natura Resources.

Focus on ACU: ACU’s Nuclear Energy eXperimental Testing Laboratory, or NEXT Lab, is leading the project, and ACU is set to receive the lion’s share of the funding, at $21.5 million.

“This alliance with Georgia Tech, Texas A&M, and Texas gives our students in physics, engineering, and chemistry an unprecedented opportunity to continue contributing to world-changing technology,” said Rusty Towell, professor of engineering and physics at ACU and director of the lab.

“We are incredibly pleased and honored to sponsor this remarkable multidisciplinary collaboration of talented researchers—physicists, engineers, chemists, and their students—to support our vision to develop advanced energy systems that are inherently safe, sustainable, and environmentally friendly,” said Tony Hill, Natura Resources’ director of product development.

Georgia Tech: Project collaborators from Georgia Tech include Steven Biegalski, professor and program chair for nuclear and radiological engineering and medical physics; Bojan Petrovic, professor of nuclear and radiological engineering; and Preet Singh, a professor in the School of Materials Science and Engineering.

“We’re excited about this opportunity to engage with colleagues in industry and academia,” Biegalski said. “It is a great opportunity for our faculty and students to apply their expertise to a real-world design project. We know it will be a valuable learning experience for all involved.”

Texas A&M: Nuclear engineering faculty members Pavel Tsvetkov, Mark Kimber, and Sean McDeavitt and their respective research groups are members of the Texas A&M team, which has been awarded $3.5 million.

“Texas A&M plays an important role on the team, supporting the design, thermal management, and fuel characterization efforts toward the reactor,” said Tsvetkov, associate professor of nuclear engineering and lead of the Texas A&M team. “We are excited to be part of the consortium. This is going to be the first advanced reactor to be built in the 21st century in the U.S. and the first to be built as a university research reactor.”

UT Austin: The University of Texas at Austin team will receive $3.5 million for its part in the project. UT Austin will lead the design of the reactor bay experimental research facilities and collaborate on the design and safety analysis of the entire system, using reactor modeling tools and high-performance computing.

“Nuclear energy is already our most effective tool against climate change,” said Derek Haas, assistant professor and lead of the UT Austin team. “The molten salt research reactor will provide the United States a testbed to develop the next generation of even safer, more efficient nuclear reactors.”

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