Asphalt, also known as bitumen is a sticky, black, highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum. It may be found in natural deposits or may be a refined product, and is classed as a pitch. Before the 20th century, the term asphaltum was also used. The word is derived from the Ancient Greek ἄσφαλτος ásphaltos. The largest natural deposit of asphalt in the world, estimated to contain 10 million tons, is the Pitch Lake located in La Brea in southwest Trinidad (Antilles island located on the northeastern coast of Venezuela), within the Siparia Regional Corporation.
The primary use (70%) of asphalt is in road construction, where it is used as the glue or binder mixed with aggregate particles to create asphalt concrete. Its other main uses are for bituminous waterproofing products, including production of roofing felt and for sealing flat roofs.
In material sciences and engineering, the terms “asphalt” and “bitumen” are often used interchangeably to mean both natural and manufactured forms of the substance, although there is regional variation as to which term is most common. Worldwide, geologists tend to favor the term “bitumen” for the naturally occurring material. For the manufactured material, which is a refined residue from the distillation process of selected crude oils, “bitumen” is the prevalent term in much of the world; however, in American English, “asphalt” is more commonly used. To help avoid confusion, the phrases “liquid asphalt”, “asphalt binder”, or “asphalt cement” are used in the U.S. Colloquially, various forms of asphalt are sometimes referred to as “tar”, as in the name of the La Brea Tar Pits, although tar is a different material.
Naturally occurring asphalt is sometimes specified by the term “crude bitumen”. Its viscosity is similar to that of cold molasses while the material obtained from the fractional distillation of crude oil boiling at 525 °C (977 °F) is sometimes referred to as “refined bitumen”. The Canadian province of Alberta has most of the world’s reserves of natural asphalt in the Athabasca oil sands, which cover 142,000 square kilometres (55,000 sq mi), an area larger than England.
Asphalt properties change with temperature, which means that there is a specific range where viscosity permits adequate compaction by providing lubrication between particles during the compaction process. Low temperature prevents aggregate particles from moving, and the required density is not possible to achieve. Computer simulations of simplified model systems are able to reproduce some of asphalt’s characteristic properties.
The vast majority of refined asphalt is used in construction: primarily as a constituent of products used in paving and roofing applications. According to the requirements of the end use, asphalt is produced to specification. This is achieved either by refining or blending. It is estimated that the current world use of asphalt is approximately 102 million tonnes per year. Approximately 85% of all the asphalt produced is used as the binder in asphalt concrete for roads. It is also used in other paved areas such as airport runways, car parks and footways. Typically, the production of asphalt concrete involves mixing fine and coarse aggregates such as sand, gravel and crushed rock with asphalt, which acts as the binding agent. Other materials, such as recycled polymers (e.g., rubber tyres), may be added to the asphalt to modify its properties according to the application for which the asphalt is ultimately intended.
A further 10% of global asphalt production is used in roofing applications, where its waterproofing qualities are invaluable. The remaining 5% of asphalt is used mainly for sealing and insulating purposes in a variety of building materials, such as pipe coatings, carpet tile backing and paint. Asphalt is applied in the construction and maintenance of many structures, systems, and components, such as the following:
- Airport runways
- Footways and pedestrian ways
- Car parks
- Tennis courts
- Damp proofing
- Reservoir and pool linings
- Pipe coatings
- Cable coatings
- Building water proofing
- Tile underlying waterproofing
- Newspaper ink production
- and many other applications