Published : 07/06/2024

Asphalt Solution 101: What Is Asphalt?

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What Exactly Is Asphalt?

You’ve driven over asphalt your entire life, and it might even be on your roof. You know what asphalt looks like, you’ve passed by construction crews using it on your daily commute, and you recognize its pungent odor. But what exactly is asphalt?

Asphalt, also known as bitumen, is a highly viscous liquid or semi-solid form of petroleum. Natural bitumen is found in lakes and oil deposits and consists mainly of hydrocarbons. It can also be refined through the distillation of crude oil into refined bitumen. Asphalt has been a pivotal component in various areas of construction for centuries due to its versatile nature.

In this post, we’ll delve into the history, uses, and recent innovations of asphalt to discover that it’s more than just rocks and oil; it’s a defining part of our world.

A Brief History of Asphalt

The word “asphalt” has roots in the ancient Greek word, “asphaltos,” meaning “secure.” However, the use of asphalt can be traced back to even earlier civilizations such as the Mesopotamians, who used natural asphalt for waterproofing their buildings and water vessels. The Mesopotamian city of Babylon is cited as one of the earliest known uses of asphalt in road construction. Countless ancient civilizations recognized asphalt’s adhesive and durable properties and utilized the material in various methods besides construction. Natural bitumen was used as a disinfectant and an insecticide. The ancient Egyptians even used bitumen as part of an embalming mixture.

In 1885, the Lathe Carbon Company began mining natural bitumen outside of Uvalde, Texas. When rancher J.G. Smyth dug fence posts in southwest Uvalde County, the rock in the ground spouted with oil. Cowboys in the area also knew about this unique rock and would add it to their fires to keep the flames lit.

While this made digging fence posts difficult, Smyth actually discovered a miracle. A low-lying oil field was shoved into the above layer of Anacacho limestone, naturally infusing the rock with the exact percentage needed to create the perfect asphalt road.

When cattle loosened the dirt ground surrounding the pens on his ranch, Smyth filled the eroded areas with this special rock. As the cattle walked across the rock, it compacted into a hard surface. J.G. Smyth thought the rock would make an exceptional road material.

By the 1890s, the city of San Antonio, Texas, used the bituminous Anacacho limestone to pave downtown Crockett Street, and the rest is history. Fast-forward to the present day, and the same unique natural asphalt has come to be called RockAsphalt©.

The history of asphalt showcases humanity’s continuous reliance on the material because of its durability and versatility. While it may not be used as an insecticide in the modern era, its dominance in the realm of road construction cannot be overstated.

What Is Asphalt Used for Today

Today, asphalt is one of the main binding agents for aggregates in road construction. This material is used to pave and maintain roads, highways, parking lots, sports courts, and even airport runways. Airport runways are often paved with asphalt due to its ability to withstand aircraft weight and impact while offering excellent skid resistance for safe takeoffs and landings.

The unique properties of asphalt contribute to its use as a road material. Asphalt provides exceptional adhesion, durability, waterproofing, and elasticity. This elasticity is especially important as fluctuations in temperature can cause roads to expand and contract.

Besides road construction, asphalt is used in the roofing industry because of its weatherproofing abilities. Asphalt shingles are created by coating materials such as fiberglass with liquid asphalt. These shingles are weatherproof, durable, cost-effective, and fire-safe. Asphalt also finds its way into the construction of dams, reservoirs, and other waterproofing applications. Its flexibility and waterproofing capabilities make it a preferred sealant.

Innovations in Asphalt Technology

Since the inception of the first asphalt cement during the Industrial Revolution, the asphalt industry has made leaps and bounds to enhance its performance. Recycled asphalt materials were developed to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, and rubberized asphalt combines recycled tires and asphalt to reduce noise levels.

Warm-mix asphalt provides an alternative to hot-mix in an effort to decrease fuel consumption. Innovations in cold-mix asphalt provide a means to repair roads during inclement weather. Advances in polymer-modified asphalt improve resistance to rutting and cracking while porous asphalt enhances drainage capabilities.

Asphalt is continuously engineered to enhance its performance for a variety of applications and scenarios. However, natural asphalt is still widely sought after in road maintenance for its exceptional durability and ease of application. Companies like RockAsphalt© provide a natural asphalt that rivals the durability and versatility of manufactured mixes.

What Is Asphalt Now?

For a material that started out waterproofing primitive boats and buildings, asphalt has exploded as a cornerstone of the construction industry. Its durability, cost-effectiveness, and versatility in a wide range of applications make it one of the most sought-after materials on the planet. This amazing material has sparked entire industries and led to countless innovations that have shaped the way our infrastructure is built. In a way, asphalt is the glue that’s connected us for thousands of years and continues to do so to this day.

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