A promising new approach to securing communications networks from cyber crime uses quantum cryptography. Researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) have developed a system that could be used for critical infrastructure control systems, including those at power plants.

The proposed version 5 of the Critical Infrastructure Protection Reliability Standards notwithstanding, securing the grid against cyber threats requires more than rules; it also requires reliable technologies and strategies. That’s where the work of LANL’s team comes in.

In quantum cryptography (QC), 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,” a LANL press release explains.

Key to the system is a miniaturized QC transmitter, known as a QKarD, that the lab says is five orders of magnitude smaller than any competing device. Jane Nordholt, LANL principal investigator and co-team leader, 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.” The team’s work leverages hardware, software, and standard communication protocols already in wide use in the energy sector.

LANL reports that a successful demonstration of the technology, which uses fiber optic cable, took place late last year at the Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid project, operated by the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The test showed that latencies using the quantum-secured communications system are at least two orders of magnitude smaller than requirements and that the system’s capabilities can be deployed with only a single optical fiber to carry the information. “Moreover, our system is scalable to multiple monitors and several control centers,” Richard Hughes, co-principal investigator explained.

The team’s work has led to 23 U.S. and foreign patent applications, and the lab’s Technology Transfer Division has received inquiries from several companies interested in commercializing the technology.

For more on this project and its potential applicability to the power industry, watch for a story in a future issue of POWER.

Sources: POWERnews, LANL, Santa Fe New Mexican

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD, Managing Editor (@POWERmagazine, @GailReit)

NOTE: This story was originally published on May 20