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Shining a light against hackers

Ray Newell, an atomic physicist at Los Alamos National Labs, will explain how his team is working on coding that might help prevent computer attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure, similar to the one that recently took out the Colonial Pipeline. (Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

One of the issues Ray Newell thought he might face in describing his current project as a physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory was to get people interested in it.

Then, hackers gained control of the Colonial Pipeline’s operating computers and, all of a sudden, Newell’s project gained very real-world emphasis.

Newell will be speaking – and fielding questions – Wednesday at 6 p.m. during the labs’ quarterly Frontiers in Science program, presented by the Los Alamos National Laboratory Fellows through the Bradbury Science Museum. This series includes presentations by scientists, engineers and others on the most innovative developments in science.

“When we first started planning this, almost two, three months ago, we were trying to set up how to get anybody to care about it,” Newell said. “Unfortunately, that piece of the talk has been largely cut out as it has been made very clear, nationwide, why it is important to secure our critical infrastructure.”

The shutdown in early May disrupted gas supplies along the East Coast and caused panic buying, 1970s-like gas lines and empty fuel stations.

“We have seen with the Colonial Pipeline attack, how impactful these issues can be on our daily lives,” Newell said.

Newell and his team have been concentrating on protecting electrical grids, with technology already in use at the lab and the connecting Los Alamos grid.

With the changing nature of electrical generation to incorporate more input from such green sources as solar and wind, it becomes ever more important to ensure control, Newell said, particularly when considering the greater need for more power as more and more electric vehicles come online.

“That’s changed how much control we need to have over power transmission, integration and generation,” he said. “With the coming increase in electric vehicles, it’s creating tremendous new types of demand and new patterns of demand for electric power. That’s all good news.”

That also makes the country more vulnerable, Newell said.

“Along with that is the need for security and defense against attacks,” he said. “As we increase our visibility and control of electric power, we have to make sure control is not given to those who want ill will.”

With a number of experts in such things as physics, electrical generations, information theory, grid control, computer technology and encryption, along with the lab’s cutting-edge technology, we might have arrived at a solution.

“Through a large sweep of technologies, we have been able to leverage the unusual and weird behavior of quantum mechanics to create a new type of security message, or control signals, that are passed across the grid,” he said. “It must be seen as reliable, and it must be understood and reacted upon very quickly at times. We must know that, when we receive it, it is authentic and not recreated.”

The answer, Newell said, is light.

The technology uses fiber optics – which is used throughout the electrical grid to carry information – and strands of glass that contain messages encoded in light, he said.

A pulse of light is transmitted in such a way that it is guaranteed to be secure, while showing it to be legitimate and secure from hacking signals, which are filtered out, Newell said.

The beauty of the system, he said, is the light pulses cannot be copied or replicated, or even read by an unauthorized person in any way, based on the laws of quantum mechanics.

“We encode information in a quantum state through the polarization of single photons on individual particles of light,” he said.

“The work generates security based on one of the unusual laws of quantum mechanics,” Newell added. “Quantum mechanics tells us some interesting things. It is not possible to cut a photon in half. You cannot subdivide it. It’s not possible to copy a photon. Physics prevents anyone from making a copy of photon. Physics dictates that anyone who tries to do so makes a measurement, and, having been measured, it will change in a way that we can detect.”

He likened it to having a book that could not be copied and the very reading of it would measurably change it.

It has worked on the local level, Newell said, and, just before the pandemic hit, it was taken to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and installed in the electrical grid there, as well.

Now comes the process of making it financially feasible, he said.

“One of the things we’ve been working on is bringing down the unit cost,” Newell said, adding that many of processes were so new that the mechanics had to be invented and built on site. “We’re working hard to bring down the costs. That’s now something we can do.”