Professor O'Brian's work aims to bring to ordinary consumers at low cost the same high levels of security that big corporations and governments have in place to prevent cyber-attacks. The new technology he has developed is called Quantum key distribution (QKD) which works by encoding a secret key in single particles of light (or photons).
As any information gained by an eavesdropper would disturb photons, any such action is detectable. Concretely, users would generate a secure key on their mobile phone, smartphone or tablet when they connect with, for example, a bank cash withdrawal machine equipped with the necessary technology. Uploading this feature would allow them, via a single PIN number, to apply various different levels of encryption to personal and business calls and mails from smartphones.
The professor's vision is that this miniaturised and scalable system would one day be embedded not only in mobile devices but also in other consumer electronics – for example to allow more secure operation of the systems already on the market which allow customers to use their mobile phones remotely to run and adjust electronic devices in the home.
Prof. O'Brien will now receive up to 150,000 euro (£130,000) as a "proof of concept" grant from the ERC to help bridge what is known in business and research circles as the "valley of death", where promising research ideas often fall by the wayside for lack of funding to complete the final stage of transforming them into marketable innovation. In 2009 he received 1.5 million euro (£1.3 million) under the ERC starting grant scheme for promising researchers.
Another UK-based researcher, Peter Jackson of Sheffield University, will get a similar ERC proof of concept grant, topping up 1.68 million euro (£1.45 million) already received, to further develop his work on the way social anxieties about food impact on government policy and business practice. This further work will involve making recommendations on issues such as food labelling and marketing, in order to improve food quality and meet consumer concerns. These research based services could be marketed to regulatory agencies and to manufacturers and retailers.
Overall 30 ERC grant holders based throughout Europe will receive the extra money for proof of concept work. Seven of them are at UK universities.