NSRI, partners receive $3 million grant to improve cybersecurity in the energy sector

February 11, 2020

Department of Energy grant team
Project collaborators at Oak Ridge National Lab take on 18 Nov 2019. From left: James Taylor (NSRI), Michael Hempel (UNL), Kalyan Perumalla (ORNL), Juan Lopez (ORNL), Joshua Mauk (OPPD)

With researchers Michael Hempel and Hamid Sharif from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln as well as Kalyan Perumalla and Juan Lopez at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory, James Taylor of the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska will conduct research to improve cybersecurity in the energy sector.

The collaborative team won a $3 million competitive research grant from the Department of Energy for a three-year project, entitled: "A Cyber-Physical Security Assurance Framework based on a Semi-Supervised Vetting Approach" (CYVET).

"We are very excited about the opportunity to expand cybersecurity collaborations with our research partners,” said Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Hinson, NSRI Executive Director. “The capability that CYVET will deliver promises a game-changing shift in OT cybersecurity that will pay off in enhanced security across our critical infrastructure systems in the DoD and private sector."

The project will develop and demonstrate a cybersecurity framework testing capability to verify and validate operational technology (OT) equipment, software and the underlying control system architecture for weaknesses in cybersecurity features as compared to the capabilities claimed by the manufacturer.

ORNL and UNL researchers will jointly develop the CYVET cybersecurity software testing methodology. Hempel and Sharif will lead prototyping the automated vetting process and development of a test harness to evaluate cybersecurity features of devices in a realistic test environment. Once completed, the research team will demonstrate its effectiveness using in testbeds configured to reflect operationally-relevant scenarios and containing equipment recommended by industry partners.

NSRI will provide cybersecurity expertise and identify technology transition opportunities to a variety of domains and potential critical infrastructure operators throughout the Department of Defense.

Through the CYVET project, energy sector operators will have an automated way of vetting their cybersecurity requirements for critical OT systems against the actual performance in the test environment. Providing the industry perspective on this project are Omaha Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District and Lincoln Electric Systems.

CYVET will also aid in training and educating the next generation of engineers and scientists, and foster awareness and competency in the cybersecurity arena, for the energy sector and beyond.

“CYVET will lead to a new paradigm for system designers who can conduct evaluations of cybersecurity claims from vendors before they are incorporated into a design,” Sharif said. “The resulting cybersecurity rating system, similar to the ‘Energy Star’ energy efficiency rating system, could add to UNL’s reputation as a leader in cybersecurity research for OT systems."

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About the National Strategic Research Institute

Founded in 2012, the National Strategic Research Institute (NSRI) at the University of Nebraska is the only University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) in the country dedicated to delivering solutions for Combating Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) to U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) and across other federal agencies. NSRI provides research and development for the U.S. Department of Defense, Department of Homeland Security and other governmental agencies in multiple mission-critical competency areas — including development of medical countermeasures to WMD; nuclear detection and forensics; consequence management; chemical and biological weapons detection; and space, cyber, and telecom law. Learn more at nsri.nebraska.edu.