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Onabajo is the recipient of an ARO Young Investigator Program Award

September 15, 2017

Assistant Professor Marvin Onabajo, electrical and computer engineering, has received a $205,000 Young Investigator Award from the Army Research Office (ARO). The grant supports Onabajo’s efforts to develop security solutions for the global semiconductor industry — specifically, an on-chip thermal sensing system that detects hardware hacking attempts.

“There is an increasing risk of harmful modifications that can be made when third parties alter chip designs that are manufactured offshore,” Onabajo states. “This means you might purchase a device with built-in vulnerabilities and, at some point, hackers can remotely activate the Trojan component and begin to steal data from your device. Alternatively, a malicious integrated circuit that is inserted without consent of the designer can also degrade functionality or deactivate a chip after a certain time or event.”

Onabajo is exploring a unique solution: designing thermal sensors that can be placed within chips to detect an increase in heat within the device when a Trojan circuit is activated. The sensor circuits will provide a security alert that can potentially be used to notify users of the malicious hacking attempt before data is compromised, or automatically stop the execution of critical tasks.

In addition to focusing on next-generation chip design with semiconductor technology while earning his masters and Ph.D. at Texas A&M, Onabajo has worked for both Intel and Broadcom. He joined the Northeastern faculty in 2011, founding the Analog & Mixed-Signal Integrated Circuit Research Laboratory in ECE.

“In all my academic research and my professional work, I’ve focused on a pressing question facing chip manufacturers: How can we make chips smaller and less expensive, while still maintaining the highest standards of performance and reliability?” explains Onabajo. “As consumers demand better integration of voice, video, and internet connectivity — into smaller and smaller mobile devices and medical implants — this is an urgent challenge.”

Much of Onabajo’s research at Northeastern focuses on the incorporation of self-testing and correction features directly onto the chip as it is manufactured. “Although the semiconductor industry has improved in its ability to produce much smaller chips with increased functionality, reliability will always be a concern, due to unavoidable variations of the chip production processes — as well as the degradation of materials over time, as devices age,” Onabajo notes. “One solution is to design chips that measure their own performance, and then self-calibrate to correct any issues. That is a continuing focus of my investigations.”

In 2015, Onabajo received a $500,000 CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation to support the design of more reliable chips for wireless communication in medical applications with the goals of ensuring signal integrity and resisting interference, while reducing power consumption. “Every chip application is important, but obviously it’s critical to maintain the signal integrity of medical implants and other devices that transmit life-saving information,” says Onabajo. “My research team at Northeastern is addressing this problem by designing ‘tunable’ integrated circuits to improve performance in the presence of manufacturing variations and interference from unwanted wireless signals in the environment.”

Onabajo concludes, “As electronic devices continue to proliferate, chip design research will have broader and broader applications. Having worked in both the semiconductor industry and academia, one of my main aims is to apply and teach practical problem-solving approaches at Northeastern. In collaboration with the students in my lab, as well as other ECE faculty, we are poised to introduce groundbreaking improvements that will make the next generation of chips smaller and more reliable for wireless devices with low power consumption for the Internet of Things.”