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New center at Illinois will examine how to safeguard nation's power grid

James E. Kloeppel, Physical Sciences Editor


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be the home of a national center that will address the challenge of how to protect the nation’s power grid, the National Science Foundation announced today. The NSF has awarded $7.5 million over five years to the project, which will be led by the U. of I. and also involve researchers at Cornell University, Dartmouth College, and Washington State University. The Department of Energy and the Department of Homeland Security have pledged to join NSF in funding and managing the effort.

The center, called Trustworthy Cyber Infrastructure for the Power Grid (TCIP), will significantly improve the way the power grid cyber infrastructure is built, making it more secure, reliable and safe.

The award was one of 36 announced today, totaling $36 million, through the NSF’s 2005 Cyber Trust program. Cyber Trust, the focus of the science foundation’s cyber-security efforts, was designed to create a system that guarantees the reliability of computers and networks underlying the nation’s infrastructures, even in the face of cyber attacks.

The awards come at a time of increased public and government concern over the vulnerability of the nation’s power grid. The Aug. 14, 2003, blackout that affected an estimated 50 million customers in the Northeast and Canada demonstrated the fragility of the grid and raised concerns about the ease with which terrorists might take advantage of that weakness.

“Our quality of life is dependent on the continuous functioning of our nation’s electric power infrastructure, and its functioning is at serious risk from both malicious cyber attacks and accidental failures,” said Bill Sanders, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Illinois who is the director of the new center.

“Studies suggest that the risk of cyber attacks is significant, and such attacks could have severe consequences,” Sanders said.

Nineteen faculty members and senior researchers will be involved with work at the TCIP center, which will be part of the university’s Information Trust Institute. The institute includes researchers from aerospace engineering, computer science, the Coordinated Science Laboratory, electrical and computer engineering, general engineering, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications and the College of Law. The institute provides national leadership in conducting research to create trustworthy and secure information systems.

Researchers will study techniques for developing control and sensor elements to form the foundation of the next-generation cyber infrastructure for the power grid. Work also will focus on trust management, data integrity and emergency response, Sanders said. Security validation techniques will be developed to predict the trustworthiness of proposed solutions.

Researchers will work with a 14-member industrial advisory board from power-system-operating companies and equipment providers to make certain that the universities’ efforts address real-world problems, according to Pete Sauer, professor and TCIP Industry Coordinator. Among the companies are Ameren, Cisco Systems, Exelon, Honeywell, Open Systems International, PJM Interconnection, PowerWorld, Siemens and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Students will be involved in much of the research, including the use of an interactive simulator that will allow multiple users to experiment with new power grid cyber-infrastructure design issues. Additional education and outreach work will draw students from diverse backgrounds ranging from the middle school to college levels.

The NSF also is awarding about $1.5 million annually for five years for a center at Johns Hopkins University focusing on the design and technology for trustworthy voting systems.

“These two centers represent opportunities to find solutions for urgent national problems,” said Carl Landwehr, the NSF coordinator for the Cyber Trust program.

Editor’s note: To reach Bill Sanders, call 217-390-1311; e-mail: