Where Does Bitumen Come From?

Asphalt, also known as bitumen, is a naturally occurring material, similar to crude petroleum. Like petroleum, asphalt is a hydrocarbon made of the remnants of long-dead living organisms, such as algae.

There are two primary sources of bitumen. The first is where it occurs naturally — normally found in the mud at the bottom of lakes and other water sources. Naturally occurring bitumen can be found all over the world, with the largest deposit being in Canada. The second source of bitumen is where it’s derived from existing sources of petroleum.

Once, naturally occurring bitumen was the most common used form of the material. However, because petroleum-derived bitumen is normally much purer than naturally occurring bitumen and can be made in much greater quantities at a lower cost, it has become much more common to use the artificial form.

Bitumen has become extremely common in our day-to-day lives. We see it every day: when we drive to work, when we walk our dogs, when we get home from school. It’s become such a ubiquitous part of civilization that it’s easy to forget that it’s even there. But asphalt has a long history that stretches back thousands of years.

A Brief History of Bitumen

The Ancient World

The earliest recorded use of asphalt is in the works of Herodotus, the ancient Greek writer credited as The Father of History. According to Herodotus, Babylonian kings and the later rulers of ancient Persia used bitumen-based materials as part of their construction projects. Bitumen was imported in and used to connect the bricks which made up the outer walls of Babylon.

Around the same time, temples were starting to be built using bitumen as a waterproofing solution. According to the archeological record, this was especially common in the Mediterranean region — especially among the Phoenicians.

Early Modern Asphalt

Bitumen wasn’t used to build roads until just before the modern period. The first roads made of asphalt were laid in Europe, by an English man named John Metcalf. He laid about 180 miles of naturally derived bitumen roads in the northern county of Yorkshire. Later on, Thomas Telford laid 900 miles of bituminous road in Scotland.

Ultimately, the early process was perfected by John Macadam, who mixed stones in with the bituminous material in order to create a stronger surface. This material was known as tarmacadam, which was later shortened to tarmac.

American Development

In the Americas, the use of bituminous materials was just as common as it was in Europe and Asia. The Tongva, Chumash and Luiseno peoples all used natural bitumen deposits as an adhesive as early as the 13th century. It wasn’t until the late 19th century, when Belgian American academic Edward de Smedt created his own method of deriving bitumen from petroleum, that the material would be used on pavements and roads.

Initially, de Smedt used bitumen sourced from nearby Virginia as part of his experiments. However, this was found to be of poor quality, so de Smedt switched his source to Pitch Lake in Trinidad and Val-de-Travers in Switzerland. This yielded a much higher-quality material, which better matched de Smedt’s expectations.

Because of the quality of de Smedt’s new product, it was chosen to be the replacement material for the resurfacing of Washington DC’s Pennsylvania Avenue — home of the White House and the President of the United States. This early contract, combined with the quality of the material and the work done, meant that the use of petroleum-derived bituminous material exploded in the US. Eventually, this led to other nations. By 1907, the use of natural bitumen for road projects had died away completely in the United States.

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