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. It is most commonly modeled as a colloid, with asphaltenes as the dispersed phase and maltenes as the continuous phase (though there is some disagreement amongst chemists regarding its structure).
The primary use of asphalt is in road construction, where it is used as the glue or binder for the aggregate particles. The road surfacing material is usually called 'asphalt concrete' in North America, or simply 'asphalt' elsewhere. Within North America the apparent interchangeability of the words 'asphalt' and 'bitumen' causes confusion outside the road construction industry despite quite clear definitions within industry circles.
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 "blowing" 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 was mined at Ritchie Mines in Macfarlan in Ritchie County, West Virginia in the United States from 1852 to 1873.
Asphalt is typically stored and transported at temperatures around 300 degrees Fahrenheit (150° C). 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 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 deities 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.
Asphalt road surface is the most widely recycled material in the US, both by gross tonnage and by percentage. According to a report issued by the Federal Highway Administration and the United States Environmental Protection Agency, 80% of the asphalt from road surfaces' that is removed each year during widening and resurfacing projects is reused as part of new roads, roadbeds, shoulders and embankments.
The world has become increasingly concerned over the global peak oil and perceived climate change problem in recent years due to the pollution that is released into the atmosphere. Most of the emissions are derived primarily from burning fossil fuels. This has led to the introduction of petroleum bitumen alternatives that are more environmentally friendly and non toxic. Bitumen can now be made from non-petroleum based renewable resources (bioasphalt).