Natural bitumen
refined bitumen

Bitumen is a mixture of organic liquids that are highly viscous, black, sticky, entirely soluble in carbon disulfide, and composed primarily of highly condensed polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

Naturally occurring or crude bitumen is a sticky, tar-like form of petroleum that is so thick and heavy that it must be heated or diluted before it will flow. At room temperature, it has a consistency much like cold molasses.[1][2] Refined bitumen is the residual (bottom) fraction obtained by fractional distillation of crude oil. It is the heaviest fraction and the one with the highest boiling point, boiling at 525 °C (977 °F).


The use of bitumen for waterproofing and as an adhesive dates at least to the third millennium BCE in the early Indus community of Mehrgarh where it was used to line the baskets in which they gathered crops.[3] 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). A one-kilometre tunnel beneath the river Euphrates at Babylon in the time of Queen Semiramis (ca. 800 B.C.) was reportedly constructed of burnt bricks covered with bitumen as a waterproofing agent. [4] This must be regarded as legendary but indicative that the concept was known.

The term bitumen comes from Latin.[5] The Greek name for the substance was άσφαλτος (asphaltos). Approximately 40 A.D. Dioscorides described production of asphaltos (as distinguished from pissasphalt and naphtha): (1655 Goodyer 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 & weightie, but the black and fowle is naught for it is adulterated with Pitch mixed with it. It growes in Phoenice also, and in Sidon, & in Babylon, & in Zacynthum. It is found also moyst swimming upon wells in the countrie of the Agrigentines of Sicilie, which they use for lamps instead of oyle, and which they call falsely Sicilian oyle, for it is a kinde of moyst Bitumen."[6]

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.[7] The Sidon bitumen is thought to refer to bitumen found at Hasbeya.[8] Pliny refers also to bitumen being found in Epirus.

Modern usage

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,[9] 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 dilbit in the Canadian petroleum industry, while bitumen "upgraded" to synthetic crude oil is known as syncrude and syncrude blended with bitumen as "synbit".[10]


The University of Queensland Pitch drop experiment, demonstrating the viscosity of bitumen.
Bitumen (or asphalt) is primarily used, when mixed with mineral aggregates, to produce paving materials. Its other main uses are for bituminous waterproofing products, including production of roofing felt and for sealing flat roofs.

Most natural 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 impregnated in sedimentary rock is the prime feed stock for petroleum production from "oil sands", currently under development in Alberta, Canada. Canada has most of the world's supply of natural bitumen, covering 140,000 square kilometres[9] (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 1.1 million barrels (170,000 m3) per day and was projected to rise to 4.4 million barrels (700,000 m3) per day by 2020.[10] The total amount of crude bitumen in Alberta which could be extracted is estimated to be about 310 billion barrels (50×10^9 m3),[11] which at a rate of 4,400,000 barrels per day (700,000 m3/d) would last about 200 years.

File:Bitumen cannisters chakdaha.jpg
Bitumen canisters for roadwork in Chakdaha.

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.[12] It is also possible that the city of Carthage was easily burnt due to extensive use of bitumen in construction.

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. It was similarly used to print millions of photochrom postcards.

Thin bitumen plates are sometimes used by computer enthusiasts for silencing computer cases or noisy computer parts such as the hard drive.[citation needed] Bitumen layers are baked onto the outside of high end dishwashers to provide sound insulation.[citation needed] Bitumen also is used in paint and marker inks by some graffiti supply companies (primarily Molotow) to increase the weather resistance and permanence of the paint and/or ink, and to make the color much darker.[citation needed]

Bitumen was the nemesis of many artists during the 19th century. Although widely used for a time, it ultimately proved unstable for use in oil painting, especially when mixed with the most common dilutents, such as linseed oil, varnish and turpentine. Unless thoroughly diluted, bitumen never fully solidifies and will in time corrupt the other pigments with which it comes into contact. The use of bitumen as a glaze to set in shadow or mixed with other colors to render a darker tone resulted in the eventual deterioration of a good many paintings, those of Delacroix being just one notable example.

Bitumen alternatives

Bitumen can now be made from non-petroleum based renewable resources such as sugar, molasses and rice, corn and potato starches. Bitumen can also be made from waste material by fractional distillation of used motor oils, which is sometimes disposed by burning or dumping into land fills. Non-petroleum based bitumen binders can be made light-colored. Roads made with lighter-colored pitch absorb less heat from solar radiation, and become less hot than darker surfaces, reducing their contribution to the urban heat island effect.[13] ..

Geological origin

Bituminous outcrop of the Puy de la Poix, Clermont-Ferrand, France

Naturally occurring deposits of bitumen are formed from the remains of ancient, microscopic algae and other once-living things. When these organisms died, their remains were deposited in the mud on the bottom of the ocean or lake where they lived. Under the heat and pressure of burial deep in the earth, the remains were transformed into materials such as bitumen, kerogen, or petroleum. Deposits at the La Brea Tar Pits are an example.

There are structural similarities between bitumens and the organic matter in carbonaceous meteorites.[14] However, detailed studies have shown these materials to be distinct.[15]

Grades of bitumen

The Paving Grades of bitumen are 30/40, 60/70 and 80/100.[16] The grade 80/100 is commonly used in India and Bangladesh but for lower temperatures other grades are preferable.

See also


  1. "Oil Sands - Glossary". Oil Sands Royalty Guidelines. Government of Alberta. 2008. Archived from the original on 2007-11-01. Retrieved 2008-02-02.
  2. Walker, Ian C. (1998) (pdf), Marketing Challenges for Canadian Bitumen, Tulsa, OK: International Centre for Heavy Hydrocarbons,, "Bitumen has been defined by various sources as crude oil with a dynamic viscosity at reservoir conditions of more than 10,000 centipoise. Canadian “bitumen” supply is more loosely accepted as production from the Athabasca, Wabasca, Peace River and Cold Lake oil-sands deposits. The majority of the oil produced from these deposits has an API gravity of between 8° and 12° and a reservoir viscosity of over 10,000 centipoise although small volumes have higher API gravities and lower viscosities."
  3. McIntosh, Jane. The Ancient Indus Valley. p. 57
  4. Script error
  5. "The Free Dictionary".
  6. Script error translated by Goodyer (1655) [1] or (Greek/Latin) compiled by Sprengel (1829) [2] p. 100 (p. 145 in PDF)
  7. Script error
  8. The organic geochemistry of the Hasbeya asphalt (Lebanon): comparison with asphalts from the Dead Sea area and Iraq Jacques Connan and Arie Nissenbaumb Organic Geochemistry Volume 35, Issue 6, June 2004, Pages 775-789 doi:10.1016/j.orggeochem.2004.01.015
  9. 9.0 9.1 "What is Oil Sands". Alberta Energy. 2007. Retrieved 2008-01-10.
  10. 10.0 10.1 "2007 Canadian Crude Oil Forecast and Market Outlook". Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. June 2007. Retrieved 2008-05-30.
  11. "ST98-2007: Alberta’s Energy Reserves 2006 and Supply/Demand Outlook" (PDF). Alberta Energy Resources Conservation Board. 2007. Retrieved 2008-05-30.
  12. Herodotus, Book I, 179
  13. EPA
  14. Hayatsu etal., Meteoritics, Vol. 18, p.310
  15. Kim & Yang Journal of Astronomy and Space Sciences, vol. 15, no. 1, p. 163-174

External links


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