OAK RIDGE, Tenn., May 12, 2020 — For
the second year in a row, a team from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge
and Los Alamos national laboratories led a demonstration hosted by EPB, a community-based utility and telecommunications
company serving Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Using an isolated portion of EPB’s fiber-optic network, the team experimented with
quantum-based technologies that could improve the cybersecurity, longevity
and efficiency of the nation’s power grid. Among other successes, the
researchers drastically increased the range that these resources can cover
in collaboration with their new industry partner, Qubitekk.
The team tested quantum key distribution,
or QKD, systems that harness the power of quantum
mechanics to authenticate data and encrypt messages with a secret “key.”
Using private encryption methods, the key securely transmits “locked”
information from one QKD system to another
through a “trusted node” that is virtually invulnerable to cyberattacks.
“This technology relies not on the
mathematical laws that govern modern computer security but on the physical
laws of quantum mechanics that do not change over time,” said Raymond
Newell, who leads LANL’s quantum communications
team. “As a result, we can make security assurances that will remain true
indefinitely because they do not rely on assumptions.”
Last year, ORNL, LANL
and EPB demonstrated that QKD
systems could work together seamlessly despite having different underlying
hardware and software components, an important step toward eventually
incorporating QKD into the grid — which provides
electricity to buildings throughout the United States — on a national
level. These systems could help ensure the compatibility of equipment from
various vendors that support utility owners and operators.
“Having demonstrated interoperability, we
can now show the benefits of an extended range that covers a larger
territory and simply gets further than would have been possible with a
single system operating on its own,” Newell said.
During this year’s demonstration, the
researchers placed their systems and a new system developed by Qubitekk, a QKD developer and
manufacturer, in electrical substations in Chattanooga. These substations
were connected by the piece of EPB’s fiber-optic
network set aside for testing and served as pitstops
that allowed each system to pass a key to the next system.
Severe distance limitations previously
prevented QKD from becoming a viable addition to
existing grid management techniques, but this test proved that three
distinct systems can complete a real-world relay of quantum keys across the
“Successfully demonstrating QKD performance in a real environment helps establish
the feasibility of this technology for protecting critical energy delivery
infrastructure,” said Nicholas Peters, the Quantum Information Science, or
QIS, group leader at ORNL.