Asphalt is a sticky, black and highly viscous liquid or semi-solid that is present in most crude petroleums and in some natural deposits sometimes termed asphaltum. In U.S. terminology, asphalt (or asphalt cement) is the carefully refined residue from the distillation process of selected crude oils. Outside North America, the product is called bitumen. The primary use of asphalt (Bitumen) is in road construction, where it is used as the glue or binder for the aggregate particles. The road surfacing material is usually called â€˜asphalt concreteâ€™ in North America or simply â€˜asphaltâ€™ elsewhere. Within North America the apparent interchangeability of the words â€˜asphaltâ€™ and â€˜bitumenâ€™ causes confusion outside the road construction industry despite quite clear definitions within industry circles.
Asphalt can sometimes be confused with tar, which is a similar black thermo-plastic material produced by the destructive distillation of coal. During the early- and mid-twentieth century when town gas was produced, tar was a readily available product and extensively used as the binder for road aggregates. The addition of tar to macadam roads led to the word tarmac, which is now used in common parlance to refer to road making materials. However, since the 1970s, when natural gas succeeded town gas, asphalt (bitumen) has completely overtaken the use of tar in these applications.
Asphalt can be separated from the other components in crude oil (such as naphtha, gasoline and diesel) by the process of fractional distillation, usually under vacuum conditions. A better separation can be achieved by further processing of the heavier fractions of the crude oil in a de-asphalting unit, which uses either propane or butane in a supercritical phase to dissolve the lighter molecules which are then separated.
Further processing is possible by â€œblowingâ€ the product: namely reacting it with oxygen. This makes the product harder and more viscous.
Natural deposits of asphalt include lake asphalts (primarily from the Pitch Lake in Trinidad and Tobago and Bermudez Lake in Venezuela), Gilsonite, the Dead Sea between Israel & Jordan, and Tar Sands.
Asphalt is typically stored and transported at temperatures around 150 degrees Celsius (300 Â°F). Sometimes diesel oil or kerosene are mixed in before shipping to retain liquidity; upon delivery, these lighter materials are separated out of the mixture. This mixture is often called bitumen feedstock, or BFS. Some dump trucks route the hot engine exhaust through pipes in the dump body to keep the material warm. The backs of tippers carrying asphalt, as well as some handling equipment, are also commonly sprayed with a releasing agent before filling to aid release. Diesel oil is sometimes used as a release agent, although it can mix with and thereby reduce the quality of the asphalt.
In the ancient Middle East, natural asphalt deposits were used for mortar between bricks and stones, ship caulking, and waterproofing. The Persian word for asphalt is mumiya, which may be related to the English word mummy. Asphalt was also used by ancient Egyptians to embalm mummies.
In the ancient Far East, natural asphalt was slowly boiled to get rid of the higher fractions, leaving a material of higher molecular weight which is thermoplastic and when layered on objects, became quite hard upon cooling. This was used to cover scabbards and other objects that needed water-proofing. Statuettes of household idols were also cast with this type of material in Japan, and probably also in China.
Poured bitumen has also been used as a damp-proof course in building.