Bitumen is a black or dark-colored (solid, semi-solid, viscous), amorphous, cementitious material that can be found in different forms, such us rock asphalt, natural bitumen, tar and bitumen derived from oil, which is referred to as petroleum bitumen.

Currently most of the roads globally are paved with bitumen. Today the world’s demand for bitumen accounts for more than 100 million tons per year which is approximately 700 million barrels of bitumen consumed annually. Petroleum bitumen is typically referred to as bitumen or asphalt.

In Europe for instance bitumen means the liquid binder. In North America, on the other hand the liquid binder is referred to as asphalt, or asphalt cement.OriginIn general the term “bituminous materials” is used to denote substances in which bitumen is present or from which it can be derived.

Bituminous substances comprise of primarily bitumens and tars.Bitumen occurs in nature in several forms: hard one – easily crumbled bitumen in rock asphalt and softer, more viscous material which is present in tar sands and asphalt ‘lakes’.

Another way in which bitumen can be obtained is through petroleum processing in this manner the bitumen is essentially the residue yielded through a distillation process of petroleum.

Although bitumen can be found in natural form, the world currently relies for all purposes on petroleum. The material has been produced in this way for over a hundred years.

Tars on the other hand do occur in nature. Tars derive as condensates from the processing of coal (at very high temperatures), petroleum, oil-shale, wood or other organic materials. Pitch is produced when a tar is partially distilled so that the volatile components have evaporated. Often coal tar is confused with bitumen however they are two entirely chemically different products and should not be mistaken. For the distinction drawn between petroleum bitumen and coal tar see the distinction table below:

Petroleum Bitumen, normally called “Bitumen” or “Asphalt” is produced by refining crude oil. Used as a binder in road-building products, it is a very viscous, black or dark brown material. The crude oil is pumped from storage tanks, where it is kept at about 60°C, through a heat exchanger system where its temperature is increased to typically 200°C by exchanging heat gained from the cooling of newly produced products in the refining process. The crude is then further heated in a furnace to typically 300° C where it is partly vaporized into an Atmospheric Distillation Column. Here the physical separation of the components occurs. The lighter components rise to the top and the heaviest components (the atmospheric residue) fall to the bottom of the column and pass through a second heat exchanger prior to treatment in a vacuum distillation column. Finally, Bitumen is obtained by vacuum distillation or vacuum flashing of atmospheric residue from the vacuum distillation column. This is “straight run bitumen”. This process is called bitumen production by straight run vacuum distillation. An alternative method of bitumen production is by precipitation from residual fractions by propane or butane-solvent deasphalting. The bitumen thus obtained has properties which derive from the type of crude oil processed and from the mode of operation in the vacuum unit or in the solvent deasphalting unit. The grade of the bitumen depends on the amount of volatile material that remains in the product: the smaller the amount of volatiles, the harder the residual bitumen. Specialists in bitumen view bitumen as an advanced and complex construction material, not as a mere by-product of the oil refining process.

Standard Bitumen Production Scheme

The Sumerians also used it as early as the third millennium BCE in statuary, mortaring brick walls, waterproofing baths and drains, in stair treads, and for shipbuilding. Other cultures such as Babylon, India, Persia, Egypt, and ancient Greece and Rome continued these uses, and in several cases the bitumen has continued to hold components securely together to this day. In some versions of the Book of Genesis in the Bible, the name of the substance used to bind the bricks of the Tower of Babel is translated as bitumen (see Gen 11:3). Although its existence has not been confirmed, a one-kilometer tunnel beneath the river Euphrates at Babylon in the time of Queen Semiramis (ca. 700 B.C.) was reportedly constructed of burnt bricks covered with bitumen as a waterproofing agent.[3]The term bitumen comes from Latin.[4] The Greek name for the substance was ?σφαλτος (asphaltos). Approximately 40 A.D. Dioscorides described production of asphaltos (as distinguished from piss asphalt and naphtha): (1655 Goodyear translation). The terms asphalt and bitumen are often used interchangeably to mean both natural and manufactured forms of the substance.

“The Judaicum Bitumen is better than others; that is reckoned the best, which doth shine like purple, being of a strong scent & weighty, but the black and fowle is naught for it is adulterated with Pitch mixed with it. It grows in Phoenice also, and in Sidon, & in Babylon, & in Zacynthum. It is found also moist swimming upon wells in the countries of the Argentines of Sicily, which they use for lamps instead of oyle, and which they call falsely Sicilian oyle, for it is a kind of most Bitumen.”

The Judaicum Bitumen is a famous deposit of native asphalt seeping through diapirs at the bottom of the Dead Sea, which comes occasionally to the surface through seismic activity in blocks of up to 100 tons in weight which are more than 99.99% pure. It was the object of the first known battle for a hydrocarbon deposit, between the Seleucids and the Nabateans in 312 B.C.

Bitumen is still the preferred geological term for naturally occurring deposits of the solid or semi-solid form of petroleum. Bituminous rock is a form of sandstone impregnated with bitumen. The oil sands of Alberta, Canada are a similar material. Bitumen is sometimes incorrectly called “tar” (tar is a black viscous material obtained from the destructive distillation of coal and is chemically distinct from bitumen). 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,[7] while asphalt is used for the oil refinery product used to pave roads and manufacture roof shingles and various waterproofing products. Diluted bitumen (diluted with naphtha to make it flow in pipelines) is known as Dilbert in the Canadian petroleum industry, while bitumen “upgraded” to synthetic crude oil is known as sync rude and sync rude blended with bitumen as “synbit”.

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