The word “asphalt” is derived from the late Middle English, in turn from French asphalte, based on Late Latin asphaltonasphaltum, which is the latinisation of the Greek ἄσφαλτος (ásphaltosásphalton), a word meaning “asphalt/bitumen/pitch”, which perhaps derives from ἀ-, “without” and σφάλλω (sfallō), “make fall”. The first use of asphalt by the ancients was in the nature of a cement for securing or joining together various objects, and it thus seems likely that the name itself was expressive of this application. Specifically, Herodotus mentioned that bitumen was brought to Babylon to build its gigantic fortification wall. From the Greek, the word passed into late Latin, and thence into French (asphalte) and English (“asphaltum” and “asphalt”). In French, the term asphalte is used for naturally occurring asphalt-soaked limestone deposits, and for specialised manufactured products with fewer voids or greater bitumen content than the “asphaltic concrete” used to pave roads.

The expression “bitumen” originated in the Sanskrit words jatu, meaning “pitch”, and jatu-krit, meaning “pitch creating” or “pitch producing” (referring to coniferous or resinous trees). The Latin equivalent is claimed by some to be originally gwitu-men (pertaining to pitch), and by others, pixtumens (exuding or bubbling pitch), which was subsequently shortened to bitumen, thence passing via French into English. From the same root is derived the Anglo-Saxon word cwidu (mastix), the German word Kitt (cement or mastic) and the old Norse word kvada.

Modern terminology

In British English, “bitumen” is used instead of “asphalt”. The word “asphalt” is instead used to refer to asphalt concrete, a mixture of construction aggregate and asphalt itself (also called “tarmac” in common parlance). Bitumen mixed with clay was usually called “asphaltum”, but the term is less commonly used today.

In Australian English, the word “asphalt” is used to describe a mix of construction aggregate. “Bitumen” refers to the liquid derived from the heavy-residues from crude oil distillation.

In American English, “asphalt” is equivalent to the British “bitumen”. However, “asphalt” is also commonly used as a shortened form of “asphalt concrete” (therefore equivalent to the British “asphalt” or “tarmac”).

In Canadian English, the word “bitumen” is used to refer to the vast Canadian deposits of extremely heavy crude oil, while “asphalt” is used for the oil refinery product. 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 is called “synbit”.

“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.

Neither of the terms “asphalt” or “bitumen” should be confused with tar or coal tars. Tar is the thick liquid product of the dry distillation and pyrolysis of organic hydrocarbons primarily sourced from vegetation masses, whether fossilized as with coal, or freshly harvested. The majority of bitumen, on the other hand, was formed naturally when vast quantities of organic animal materials were deposited by water and buried hundreds of meters deep at the diagenetic point, where the disorganized fatty hydrocarbon molecules joined together in long chains in the absence of oxygen. Bitumen occurs as a solid or highly viscous liquid. It may even be mixed in with coal deposits. Bitumen, and coal using the Bergius process, can be refined into petrols such as gasoline, and bitumen may be distilled into tar, not the other way around.

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