Happy Valley: Home of the smart chip?

09/22/2022

By Jeff Cavanaugh

Across the globe, people rely on smart technology every second of the day, but current security technology within smart devices is lacking in energy conservation and overall efficiency. A team of Penn State researchers hopes to change that. Photo: Kelby Hochreither, Penn State

A team of Penn State researchers led by Saptarshi Das, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics at the Penn State School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has developed a smart chip to enhance security while conserving energy in personal smart devices.

"The talent and expertise of people in Happy Valley are a big part of why we continue to grow and thrive here."

Their research, published in Nature Communications earlier this summer, was driven by the need for better security solutions for everyday smart devices.

“Digital information is experiencing unprecedented and exponential growth across every sector of modern society. This information revolution has led to the emergence of a new technological landscape called the Internet of Things, where the information generated from everyday devices is collected and transmitted among other devices to interpret the acquired information and take necessary actions without any human intervention,” Akhil Dodda, Penn State engineering science and mechanics doctoral student, explained.

“This particular technology is interesting if it can practically improve hardware-based security without unnecessary computation or power drain."

“Slowly building momentum for over a decade, these devices are influencing every aspect of our day-to-day lives and transforming the future into a data-centric world. However, with the increasing demand for these devices, there is an escalating threat of tampering and physical intrusion of privacy by untrustworthy parties. The dire need for security solutions in a data-centric world inspired us to pursue this study,” Dodda added.

Dodda explained that conventional software-based security primitives, while powerful, also consume an enormous amount of energy in encrypting information, thereby necessitating the need for novel, hardware-based cryptographic primitives. While hardware-based cryptographic modules exist, aging silicon technology and the ruinous power consumption of conventional architectures mean that innovation in materials, devices and architectures is required to design next-generation secure electronics.

Knowing that, the team of researchers developed a low-power, bio-inspired and fully-integrated smart chip to secure information at the sensor node. The smart chip senses the information from the external world and encodes information using transistors based on a nanometer-thick semiconducting two-dimensional (2D) material. Additionally, testing has shown that the encoded information is resilient to advanced machine learning attacks and requires a significantly high number of brute-force trials (BFTs) to decode the information. Likewise, the amount of energy consumed in encoding this information is minuscule compared to state-of-the-art hardware primitives.

In other words, the overall result of the team’s research is a low-power, all-in-one chip that can sense, store, compute and communicate information among connected devices, creating a potential solution for smart tech users who want added security, but cannot afford to drain their handheld device batteries in day-to-day use.

Happy Valley: Home of the smart chip?

The research and development of the above smart chip is encouraging to companies already thriving in the 4.0 technology sector within Happy Valley. Dr. Jeremy Frank, CEO of KCF Technologies in State College, indicated that cybersecurity is a vital requirement for KCF Technologies’ business and customers.

“Customers from all around the world are happy to travel and stay in this safe and bucolic environment. SNI has everything it needs to grow, right here in Centre County and the surrounding, easy-to-access areas.”

“This particular technology is interesting if it can practically improve hardware-based security without unnecessary computation or power drain. We and our customers share cybersecurity as a vital requirement, but operating with low power consumption is very challenging — especially for industrial wireless devices that must last for many years on a single battery,” Frank said. “Solving these problems together would be a substantial improvement, and we will look forward to opportunities to leverage this type of technology.”

Frank said KCF Technologies’ primary mission is to solve the industrial machine health problem, which contributes to trillions of dollars of economic loss and hundreds of thousands of industrial injuries every year.

“We were born from the Penn State Center for Acoustics and Vibration, one of the many deep expertise centers leveraging materials, sensors, smart technology and other Industry 4.0 capabilities. The talent and expertise of people in Happy Valley are a big part of why we continue to grow and thrive here,” Frank added. “We appreciate the Happy Valley community, and HappyValley Industry in particular, for helping the technology companies and university researchers here become increasingly interconnected as our region increasingly becomes a go-to location for Industry 4.0 technology.”

Sensor Networks, Inc., also in State College, engineers and manufactures industrial products used by global Fortune 1000 companies to test for quality and provide enhanced safety and reliability to customer’s facilities and end products. Bruce Pellegrino, vice president of marketing at Sensor Networks, Inc., echoed the importance of the region to the company’s growth.

“We grew from zero to 100 associates over the past eight years. The local environment is very business-friendly and having access to Penn State’s graduate pool and other resources has been really great,” Pellegrino said. “Customers from all around the world are happy to travel and stay in this safe and bucolic environment. SNI has everything it needs to grow, right here in Centre County and the surrounding, easy-to-access areas.”

It all starts with Penn State

As is alluded above, the continued growth and development of Happy Valley as a leader in advanced technology development for the global marketplace has been driven by hard-working innovators and the world-class facilities and education available at Penn State.

With the increasing demand for these devices, there is an escalating threat of tampering and physical intrusion of privacy by untrustworthy parties.

“Penn State is a world-class university and has a vibrant community of faculty and staff. Penn State’s Materials Research Institute is equipped with world-class facilities and has been the powerhouse in providing high-quality, large-area-grown 2D materials…” Dodda said.

The researchers indicated that they plan to reach out to federal agencies and private corporations that specialize in smart security to extend and expand the scope of their work.

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