In British English, the word 'asphalt' refers to a mixture of mineral aggregate and bitumen (or tarmac in common parlance). The word 'tar' refers to the black viscous material obtained from the destructive distillation of coal and is chemically distinct from bitumen. In American English, bitumen is referred to as 'asphalt' or 'asphalt cement' in engineering jargon. In Australian English, bitumen is sometimes used as the generic term for road surfaces. In Canadian English, the word bitumen is used to refer to the vast Canadian deposits of extremely heavy crude oil, while asphalt is used for the oil refinery product used to pave roads and manufacture roof shingles. Diluted bitumen (diluted with naphtha to make it flow in pipelines) is known as dilbit in the Canadian petroleum industry, while bitumen upgraded to synthetic crude oil is known as syncrude and syncrude blended with bitumen as synbit.
Most bitumens contain sulfur and several heavy metals such as nickel, vanadium, lead, chromium, mercury and also arsenic, selenium, and other toxic elements. Bitumens can provide good preservation of plants and animal fossils.
Naturally occurring crude bitumen is the prime feed stock for petroleum production from tar sands currently under development in Alberta, Canada. Canada has most of the world's supply of natural bitumen, covering 140,000 square kilometres (an area larger than England), giving it the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. The Athabasca oil sands is the largest bitumen deposit in Canada and the only one accessible to surface mining, although recent technological breakthroughs have resulted in deeper deposits becoming producible by in-situ methods. Because of oil price increases since 2003, upgrading bitumen to synthetic crude oil has become highly profitable. As of 2006 Canadian crude bitumen production averaged about per day and was projected to rise to per day by 2020. The total amount of crude bitumen in Alberta which could be extracted is estimated to be about , which at a rate of 4.4 million barrels per day would last about 200 years.
In the past, bitumen was used to waterproof boats, and even as a coating for buildings with some additives. The Greek historian Herodotus said hot bitumen was used as mortar in the walls of Babylon. It is also possible that the city of Carthage was easily burnt due to extensive use of bitumen in construction.
Vessels for the heating of bitumen or bituminous compounds are usually subject to specific conditions in public liability insurance policies, similar to those required for blow torches, welders, and flame-cutting equipment.
Bitumen was also used in early photographic technology. It was most notably used by French scientist Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in the first picture ever taken. The bitumen used in his experiments were smeared on pewter plates and then exposed to light, thus making a black and white image.
Thin bitumen plates are sometimes used by computer enthusiasts for silencing computer cases or noisy computer parts such as the hard drive. Bitumen layers are baked onto the outside of high end dishwashers to provide sound insulation.