Boise State prof receives grant to develop power grid security that thinks like a human

Richard Vogel/AP

A Boise State associate professor is researching ways to improve the power grid’s reliability by creating electronics to make it think like a human brain. The United States Department of Energy is now helping him.

Kurtis Cantley, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at BSU, was awarded a three-year grant of $700,000 by the Department of Energy’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.

The program is a federal-state partnership program that provides funding for sustainable and nationally competitive energy-related research. Cantley’s grant is part of a larger $21 million research grant explicitly focused on research in underrepresented areas.

His research will focus on improving the power grid’s reliability by developing hardware that will monitor power grid systems using something called neuromorphic systems.

Cantley’s research won’t prevent physical attacks on substations like those seen in North Carolina last week or a string of attacks on electric substations in Oregon and Washington, but it will improve the efficiency of power grids while making it harder for cyber attackers.

“Machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms are typically implemented in software running on digital computers,” Cantley stated in a news release.

“When we talk about neuromorphic systems,” he continued, “that means it’s basically machine learning done in hardware, or an electronic system that is specifically meant to implement machine learning algorithms really efficiently.”

Cantley will work with the Idaho National Laboratory on the project, a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory primarily focusing on nuclear research.

Cantley said in a news release that his research is essential because power systems are becoming increasingly more complex. From energy grids for enormous factories to home solar grids and smart device microgrids that power small communities, part of the reliability required is for a system to detect anomalies and respond accordingly immediately.

One of the primary purposes of Cantley’s hardware is to make it more complicated for cyber attackers to reverse-engineer his hardware and hack into power systems.

Some of the grant will also be used to research microchips to monitor subsystems of the power grid.

“We will mostly conduct hardware simulation,” Cantley said. “But there is some money in this grant to actually design and have our own chips fabricated to implement the algorithms that we develop for monitoring subsystems of the power grid.”

Cantley’s research will initially be used to monitor a power grid capable of powering a small neighborhood, but it will eventually be able to scale up to monitor much larger areas in the future.