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Electric grid secured by quantum cryptography

20 Feb 2013

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Using quantum cryptography (QC), a Los Alamos National Laboratory team had successfully completed a demonstration of securing control data for electric grids.

The demonstration was performed in the electric grid test bed that is part of the Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIPG) project at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC).

Novel methods for controlling the electric grid are needed to accommodate new energy sources such as renewables whose availability can fluctuate on short time scales. This requires transmission of data to and from control centres; but for grid-control use, data must be both trustworthy and delivered without delays. The simultaneous requirements of strong authentication and low latency are difficult to meet with standard cryptographic techniques. New technologies that further strengthen existing cybersecurity protections are needed.

Quantum cryptography provides a means of detecting and defeating an adversary who might try to intercept or attack the communications. Single photons are used to produce secure random numbers between users, and these random numbers are then used to authenticate and encrypt the grid control data and commands. Because the random numbers are produced securely, they act as cryptographic key material for data authentication and encryption algorithms.

At the heart of the quantum-secured communications system is a unique, miniaturized QC transmitter invention, known as a QKarD, that is five orders of magnitude smaller than any competing QC device. Jane Nordholt, the Los Alamos principal investigator, put it this way: "This project shows that quantum cryptography is compatible with electric-grid control communications, providing strong security assurances rooted in the laws of physics, without introducing excessive delays in data delivery."


Quantum cryptography for electric grids

The miniature quantum encryption transmitter at Los Alamos National Laboratory generates random cryptographic keys to encode and decode information to protect electric infrastructure control systems.


Strong security assurances

A late-2012 demonstration at UIUC showed that quantum cryptography provides the necessary strong security assurances with latencies (typically 250µs, including 120µs to traverse the 25km of optical fibre connecting the two nodes) that are at least two orders of magnitude smaller than requirements. The team's quantum-secured communications system demonstrated that this capability could be deployed with only a single optical fibre to carry the quantum, single-photon communications signals; data packets; and commands. "Moreover, our system is scalable to multiple monitors and several control centres," said Richard Hughes, the co-principal investigator from Los Alamos.

The TCIPG cyber-physical test bed provides a realistic environment to explore cutting-edge research and prove emerging smart grid technology in a fully customisable environment. In this demonstration, high-fidelity power simulation was leveraged using the real-time digital simulator to enable hardware in the loop power simulation to drive real phasor measurement units (PMUs), devices, deployed on today's electric grid that monitor its operation.

"The simulator provides a mechanism for proving technology in real-world scenarios," said Tim Yardley, assistant director of test bed services. "We're not just using perfect or simulated data, so the results demonstrate true feasibility."


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