An Analysis of the Potential and Cost of the US Refinery Sector Decarbonization

P. Sun, V. Cappello, A. Elgowainy, P. Vyawahare, O. Ma, K. Podkaminer, N. Rustagi, M. Koleva, M. Melaina
Argonne National Laboratory,
United States

Keywords: decarbonization, negative life-cycle CO2 emissions, US refinery, energy inputs, carbon capture, biocrude, renewable hydrogen, refinery cost per barrel crude


Climate change is an imminent global threat to human health and world economies, as demonstrated by the increasing occurrence of natural disasters and environment -related injuries, illnesses, and even deaths. The United States committed to reduce net GHG emissions by 50%−52% by 2030 and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. To reach such ambitious goals, deep decarbonization is needed across all sectors that release GHGs. The petroleum refining sector is one of the largest CO2-emitting industries in the United States. In addition to the CO2 emitted from the refining process, a much greater quantity of CO2 emissions accompanies the downstream combustion of the refinery products in various applications. In fact, combustion of refinery fuel products makes the transportation sector the leading CO2 emissions source in the United States. Thus, decarbonization of U.S. refineries throughout the value chain or life cycle of their fuel products is crucial to achieving the nation’s short- and long-term GHG emissions goals. However, given the complexity of U.S. refineries that consists of numerous interconnected operation units, a comprehensive and quantitative analysis with deep understanding in refinery operations is much needed. Argonne National Laboratory researchers, led by Dr. Pingping Sun analyzed U.S. refineries decarbonization opportunities and potentials, by using U.S. refinery actual operational data in 2019. The study identified U.S. refinery decarbonization potentials and quantified the impact, including (1) switching refinery energy inputs from fossil to renewable sources (e.g., switch hydrogen source); (2) carbon capture and storage of CO2 from various refining units; and (3) blending the feedstock (petroleum crude) with biocrude with various blending levels. In addition, the studied estimated decarbonization cost based on 2019 energy price. The study shows that net zero emission can be achieved by combining various decarbonization approaches, and the decarbonization cost can be as low as $10-50/bbl crude, highly dependent on the price spread between incumbent energy sources and renewable energy sources (e.g. crude price vs biocrude, natural gas derived H2 and green H2, etc.) Dr. Pingping Sun will describe for the TechConnect audience the genesis for pursuing this study, and will detail the outcomes and recommendations from the study United States refineries. Dr. Sun will generate discussion on important and urgently needed decarbonization strategies for the US refinery sector. Dr. Pingping Sun is a group leader at Argonne National Laboratory where she leads the hydrogen and electrification analysis-2 group. Her research focuses on assessing new technologies and energy systems through process modeling, techno-economic analysis (TEA), and life-cycle analysis (LCA). She assesses the economic performance and environmental impacts of a variety of technologies for energy production and materials manufacturing, including electro-fuels production, carbon capture and utilization, hydrogen production and use in industrial processes, fossil and renewable fuels, refinery analysis, iron and steel production, chemical and plastic manufacturing, and the conversion of waste into new fuels and chemicals. Prior to joining Argonne, Dr. Sun worked at Conoco Phillips and Phillips 66. She received her doctorate from University of California Davis.