What is Asphalt? | The History of Asphalt

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Asphalt is an often underappreciated and misunderstood resource that most people utilize daily. 

  • Asphalt is used in many commercial projects that are important to your everyday life. 
  • With a surprising origin and uncommon uses, asphalt is an interesting material. 
  • The use of asphalt will likely not fall out of favor any time soon due to its versatility and importance to infrastructure. 

Asphalt is used for many commercial and residential paving projects, yet many people have no idea what asphalt actually is or where its use originated. You may be surprised to learn some of the unusual facts about asphalt, including where it is found naturally, and the many uses it serves in construction projects. Learning more about this amazing resource can help people appreciate how important it is to our everyday lives. 

History of Asphalt

When you think of asphalt, most people think about parking lots and roads, but the origin of human use began much earlier than cars and roads. Another common misconception is that asphalt is a manmade material that was invented within the last century or so. In reality, it occurs naturally and has been used for purposes other than roads for centuries. 

Naturally-Occurring Asphalt

In contrast to the commonly-held belief that asphalt was entirely manmade, there are large deposits in lakes worldwide. The largest volume in one area is around ten million tons and is located inside Pitch Lake in Trinidad. In addition to lakes, asphalt can occur naturally in the form of rock blends, including sand and limestone. This resource is abundant, so the environmental impact is minimal compared to many of the other materials used for paving.  

Original Use For Asphalt

You may be surprised to learn that the earliest uses of asphalt were not related to transportation at all. Bizarrely, its use can be traced as far back as ancient Egypt. The Dead Sea is abundant in natural asphalt, which was collected and transported to Egypt to use as part of the mummification process that was part of the standard burial process at the time.

Asphalt served multiple purposes during mummification. It was used as a barrier to prevent insects, moisture, and other elements from touching the body and also served as protection from deterioration. It is believed that the naturally high sulfur content of asphalt helped prevent the mummified body from decomposing too quickly. 

In the 13th century, asphalt was also used by Indigenous people during the construction of ceremonial tools as well as the building of structures. Pure asphalt removed from lakes or rock deposits was mixed with other naturally occurring materials for this purpose. 

Asphalt and Roadways

The asphalt history of roads began well before the invention of cars. The first recorded use was traced back to 625 BC in Babylon, when rock asphalt was used as part of the road-building process. As early as 1824, asphalt was used on roads in Paris, France, to please travelers through the area. In the United States, the first asphalt-paved road was created in New Jersey in 1870. Soon after, asphalt paving was utilized to create Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the success of this type of road only continued from there. 

Uses and Benefits of Asphalt

Asphalt is the primary material used for roads and parking areas of commercial properties. Over 90% of areas used for parking purposes are covered in asphalt. Even though the earth contains an abundance of natural asphalt, it is the most recycled product in the United States due to the ease of recycling. Around 80% of old asphalt removed from parking areas or other paved areas is recycled and reused elsewhere. 

At the same time, asphalt is recycled, other materials also get recycled which increases overall recycling rates. These materials include rubber products such as old tires, some types of metals, and roofing shingles. The dark black product you recognize on the street is a mixture of several different substances and fillers. 

Besides being found abundantly and easy to recycle and reuse, asphalt has many other benefits. For personal and commercial travelers, driving on asphalt has been proven to reduce fuel consumption and highway noise. Roads paved with asphalt are also easy to fix when they become damaged, which reduces traffic delays and detour time. Depending on the type of damage, different types of repairs may be required. 

  • Small clusters of cracks that resemble the skin of an alligator are called alligator cracks. 
  • Cracks that occur in larger rectangles or squares are referred to as block cracks. 
  • Areas of high traffic can lead to cracks in a perpendicular line that are called transverse cracks. 
  • If a crack occurs at the asphalt edge, it is named an edge crack. 
  • If you see areas that begin in a crescent shape, it has the potential to develop into a pothole and is referred to as slippage. 

Other Interesting Asphalt Facts

Asphalt is not only useful but also an interesting material to learn more about. If someone asks what you know about this material, offer up some fun facts to add interest to the conversation. 

  • Asphalt is not solid but has pockets of air throughout, which means that sometimes weeds or grass can grow through to the surface. 
  • Federal spending on asphalt projects employs large amounts of people every year. Jobs are created at a rate of about 28,000 per one billion spent on a project. 
  • Porous versions of asphalt allow water to seep through the surface into the ground below and are useful for stormwater and environmental impact planning. 
  • Asphalt is also commonly called tarmac and blacktop. 
  • If asphalt were not recyclable, road projects would cost taxpayers about 300 million dollars more per year. 
  • As recently as 30 years ago, it was costly and labor-intensive to use asphalt for paving projects, but now it can be produced at a fraction of the cost without negatively impacting the environment. 
  • Asphalt is a product that has survived from ancient times through modern ones with no signs of stopping as new paving processes take you into the future. 

Design Your Next Asphalt Project

Asphalt is used for both large and small commercial projects in addition to roads and parking lots. Adding this material into your design can be an excellent choice due to its durability, cost-effectiveness, and quick turnaround for construction. Even though it is a common material used in most people’s everyday lives, many people have no idea about the origin and facts of asphalt paving

If you are considering asphalt for your next construction project, learning more about the history, uses, benefits, and other fun facts can help you decide the direction you want to go. Pairing with an experienced paving company can help you get the job done with excellent quality and value. Neyra Paving provides excellence in service and 40 years of combined experience to each project, whether large or small.

As a family-owned and operated business, the team always strives to handle each customer with the most outstanding care. To learn about paving projects or other available services in the Cincinnati, OH area, contact Neyra Paving online for more information or call 513-986-1011.

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