When you think of asphalt, you probably imagine long, sweeping roadways, perfectly paved paths, and pristine parking lots. But asphalt, also known as bitumen, has enjoyed a long and interesting career as an exceptionally versatile construction material. Since asphalt is a naturally occurring resource, its use actually dates back to ancient times. Over the years, the use of asphalt has gradually been refined into the paving substance we’re familiar with today. Canada has the largest deposit of naturally occurring asphalt in the world, so it can be found all around us. When you cross the street, take a walk down a footpath, or search for your car in a parking lot, you might not realize the rich history that lies under your feet! Let’s take a look at some of the ways this amazing material has contributed to our history.
A Sticky Situation – Asphalt as an Adhesive
What we in the paving industry know as modern asphalt is actually asphalt concrete. Aggregate material (stone and sand) is mixed with liquid asphalt cement to create the material we at Burnaby Blacktop use on a daily basis. Since asphalt is what holds the aggregate material together, it must be a pretty good adhesive, right? The ancient Sumerians thought so. It was commonly used as mortar between bricks and stones, as caulking, and to anchor pieces of carvings in place. On the West Coast of North America, there’s evidence that asphalt was used as an adhesive on ceremonial objects and decorations. From big building blocks to small stones, asphalt makes it possible to stick together.
A Watertight Seal – Asphalt for Waterproofing
One of the benefits of modern asphalt concrete is that it provides a water-resistant seal. But the use of asphalt as a waterproofing agent is nothing new for enterprising builders. Also known as pitch, asphalt was used as a waterproofing agent in small boats, large ships, waterways, pools, baths, and anywhere else a watertight seal was required. Canada has a long history of using asphalt as a waterproofing agent. The Canadian First Nations people used the naturally-occurring deposits of bitumen (another name for asphalt) on the banks of the Athabasca River to waterproof their birch bark canoes. Asphalt made the difference between sink or swim many times throughout history!
A History of Creativity – Asphalt’s Role in Photography
One of the more interesting and obscure ways asphalt was seen in history was through its use in photography. Asphalt was actually used to create what is now the oldest surviving camera photograph. A thin layer of bitumen was used to coat the pewter photographic plate. When exposed in a camera, the light hardened the bitumen, so when the plate was washed in solvent, the brightly lit areas remained visible. Since the bitumen-coated plates required several hours for exposure, it was not a popular photography method, and the use of bitumen gradually died out. Even so, it’s another example of how versatile this wonderful material is.
A Roof Over One’s Head – Asphalt as a Roofing Material
If you were to imagine the perfect roofing material, you’d want it to be strong, durable, and most of all, waterproof. Asphalt stands, seals, and delivers! The first asphalt shingles were used in 1901, and today, asphalt shingles remain the most popular roof covering in North America. They’re durable, inexpensive to produce, easy to install, and can be manufactured to suit a variety of architectural styles. Adhesive asphalt is applied to an asphalt-saturated base, and then covered with granules of brick or different kinds of stone. These granules give the shingles their colour and strength, while the asphalt itself provides a waterproof seal. The different bases used in asphalt shingles can affect their durability, although most asphalt shingle roofs will remain in good repair for at least 15 to 20 years. So if you’ve got a roof over your head and a warm, dry place to sleep tonight, chances are you can thank asphalt!
The Road to Success – Asphalt as a Paving Material
Throughout history, asphalt has been used to create modern and safe roads and walkways. In the 1800s, asphalt was heralded in England and France as an innovative paving solution. Although asphalt was in plentiful supply in Canada and had been used as a waterproofing agent for some time by First Nations peoples, extracting the natural bitumen from the Athabasca oil sands was no easy feat, initially making it an uneconomical solution for building roads. In addition, the cost to transport the asphalt for paving was too high. In 1915, a man by the name of Sidney Ells experimented with a technique to separate the bitumen from the oil sands, and 600 feet (183 metres) of road in Edmonton, Alberta was paved with the extracted material.
As separation techniques were refined, the popularity of asphalt as a paving material continued to grow. Today, asphalt is used in 95% of the roads and parking lots in North America. The majority of the world’s production of asphalt is used for paving, and with good reason! Asphalt concrete is relatively inexpensive to produce, it’s strong and durable, flexible (especially compared to other paving materials like concrete), unaffected by salt, and designed to withstand freezing and thawing. Its flexible qualities also make it easy to repair, which can save you thousands over the lifetime of the surface.
Since asphalt concrete is a mixture of aggregate and liquid asphalt, it can be customized for a variety of situations and weather conditions. It can be precision-engineered for just about anything, from walking paths, to heavy-duty commercial uses. It can be exceptionally smooth, have a more rustic aesthetic, and can even be coloured and shaped to resemble many different kinds of surfaces. With such versatility, affordability, dependability, and a rich history behind it, it’s no wonder that asphalt is the most popular paving surface in the world today!
Burnaby Blacktop is proud to carry on the tradition of building a safer, smoother road to the future! If you have any questions about this incredible construction material, you’d like to get more information on our paving services, or you’re in need of asphalt refreshing or repair, give us a call at 778-855-0513.