Tech Insights

Quantum Leap: Safeguarding the Grid With Quantum Computing

May 10, 2024 by Jake Hertz

Oak Ridge National Laboratory and partners are testing methods to use quantum computing to safeguard the power grid from cyberattacks.

Renewable energy is important to a sustainable future but presents numerous challenges in the power grid. Cybersecurity and grid optimization in the increasingly digitalized power grid can threaten grid reliability and national security. 

To address this concern, Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) has collaborated with other entities to bring quantum computing to smart grid power. 


Interfacing real-time simulators and quantum computers.

Interfacing real-time simulators and quantum computers. Image used courtesy of ONREL 


Quantum Innovation in Grid Modernization

In partnership with IonQ, ORNL has explored using quantum technology to strengthen security in power grid modernization. 

As demand grows and energy sources diversify, solutions must be found to optimize and secure the grid. From a computer science perspective, the proliferation of energy sources represents a related increase in grid optimization input parameters. As the grid becomes more complex and the underlying optimization equations become harder to compute, classical computers may be insufficient to handle millions of inputs and outputs. The collaboration between IonQ and ORNL seeks to develop quantum computing technology to enable new operational and planning capabilities for the grid.

Moreover, quantum computing can enhance the cybersecurity of power grids by processing and encrypting data using quantum principles called superposition and entanglement. Superposition means a system exists simultaneously in multiple states until it is measured, at which point it collapses into one of those states. Entanglement happens when two or more particles become interconnected so that one particle’s state cannot be described independently of the others’ states, regardless of the distance between them. These two principles allow quantum computers to work faster and more efficiently than conventional computers.

Quantum encryption techniques offer heightened security because they rely on fundamental laws of physics rather than computational complexity. Quantum key distribution enables the creation of extremely secure encryption keys, making it exceedingly difficult for anyone to intercept or tamper with sensitive information transmitted across the grid's communication networks. 

Supported by projects like GRID-Q and ORNL’s Quantum Computing User Program, the collaboration aims to gain access to real-world quantum computers to develop practical solutions. 


The Quantum Leap

ORNL researchers are collaborating with Los Alamos National Laboratory and Qubitekk, to develop the nation's first industry-driven commercial quantum network. 

In theory, a quantum-based communication network is less prone to cyber threats because it leverages quantum mechanics principles to secure data transmission. Unlike classical communication systems, which rely on mathematical algorithms for encryption, quantum communication utilizes inherent quantum particle properties like superposition and entanglement to encode and transmit information. Any attempt to intercept or eavesdrop on quantum-encoded data would disturb the quantum state, alerting the communicating parties to the potential breach. 


The setup for ORNL’s first quantum experiment.

The setup for ORNL’s first quantum experiment. Image used courtesy of Science X


Additionally, quantum key distribution (QKD) protocols enable the generation of secure encryption keys by exploiting the quantum properties of particles, ensuring that any attempt to intercept the key would be immediately detected. Consequently, quantum communication networks offer a fundamentally secure framework for transmitting sensitive information, promising unparalleled cybersecurity levels in an increasingly digitized world.

The ORNL-led team experimented with quantum-based secret keys with part of Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board. The team showed they could use QKD systems without disrupting general operations despite operating with different hardware and software elements. 


Future Prospects of Quantum Computing

As the grid digitalizes and national security becomes more important, quantum encryption advances can significantly impact the grid’s future and security. With these collaborations, the ORNL-led teams could make significant steps forward.