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Asphalt concrete (commonly called asphalt, blacktop, or pavement in North America, and tarmac in Great Britain and Ireland) is a composite material commonly used to surface roads, parking lots, and airports. It consists of mineral aggregate bound together with asphalt, laid in layers, and compacted. The process was refined and enhanced by Belgian inventor and U.S. immigrant Edward de Smedt. It is increasingly being used as the core of embankment dams.
The terms "asphalt (or asphaltic) concrete", "bituminous asphalt concrete", and "bituminous mixture" are typically used only in engineering and construction documents, which define concrete as any composite material composed of mineral aggregate adhered with a binder. The abbreviation "AC" is sometimes used for "asphalt concrete" but can also denote "asphalt content" or "asphalt cement", referring to the liquid asphalt portion of the composite material.
Mixing of asphalt and aggregate is accomplished in one of several ways:
A variety of specialty asphalt concrete mixtures have been developed to meet specific needs, such as stone-matrix asphalt, which is designed to ensure a very strong wearing surface, or porous asphalt pavements, which are permeable and allow water to drain through the pavement for controlling stormwater.
Different types of asphalt concrete have different performance characteristics in terms of surface durability, tire wear, braking efficiency and roadway noise. In principle, the determination of appropriate asphalt performance characteristics must take into account the volume of traffic in each vehicle category, and the performance requirements of the friction course. Asphalt concrete generates less roadway noise than a Portland cement concrete surface, and is typically less noisy than chip seal surfaces.
Because tire noise is generated through the conversion of kinetic energy to sound waves, more noise is produced as the speed of a vehicle increases. The notion that highway design might take into account acoustical engineering considerations, including the selection of the type of surface paving, arose in the early 1970s.
Asphalt deterioration can include crocodile cracking, potholes, upheaval, raveling, bleeding, rutting, shoving, stripping, and grade depressions. In cold climates, frost heaves can crack asphalt even in one winter. Filling the cracks with bitumen is a temporary fix, but only proper compaction and drainage can slow this process.
Factors that cause asphalt concrete to deteriorate over time mostly fall into one of three categories: construction quality, environmental considerations, and traffic loads. Often, damage results from combinations of factors in all three categories.
Construction quality is critical to pavement performance. This includes the construction of utility trenches and appurtenances that are placed in the pavement after construction. Lack of compaction in the surface of the asphalt, especially on the longitudinal joint can reduce the life of a pavement by 30 to 40%. Service trenches in pavements after construction have said to reduce the life of the pavement by 50%, mainly due to the lack of compaction in the trench, and also because of water intrusion through improperly sealed joints.
Environmental factors include heat and cold, the presence of water in the subbase or subgrade soil underlying the pavement, and frost heaves.
High temperatures soften the asphalt binder, allowing heavy tire loads to deform the pavement into ruts. Paradoxically, high heat and strong sunlight also cause the asphalt to oxidize, becoming stiffer and less resilient, leading to crack formation. Cold temperatures can cause cracks as the asphalt contracts. Cold asphalt is also less resilient and more vulnerable to cracking.
Water trapped under the pavement softens the subbase and subgrade, making the road more vulnerable to traffic loads. Water under the road freezes and expand in cold weather, causing and enlarging cracks. In spring thaw, the ground thaws from the top down, so water is trapped between the pavement above and the still-frozen soil underneath. This layer of saturated soil provides little support for the road above, leading to the formation of potholes. This is more of a problem for silty or clay soils than sandy or gravelly soils. Some jurisdictions pass frost laws to reduce the allowable weight of trucks during the spring thaw season and protect their roads.
Traffic damage mostly results from trucks and buses. The damage a vehicle causes is proportional to the axle load raised to the fourth power, so doubling the weight an axle carries actually causes 16 times as much damage. Wheels cause the road to flex slightly, resulting in fatigue cracking, which often leads to crocodile cracking. Vehicle speed also plays a role. Slowly moving vehicles stress the road over a longer period of time, increasing ruts, cracking, and corrugations in the asphalt pavement.
Other causes of damage include heat damage from vehicle fires, or solvent action from chemical spills.
The life of a road can be prolonged through good design, construction and maintenance practices. During design, engineers measure the traffic on a road, paying special attention to the number and types of trucks. They also evaluate the subsoil to see how much load it can withstand. The pavement and subbase thicknesses are designed to withstand the wheel loads. Sometimes, geogrids are used to reinforce the subbase and further strengthen the roads. Drainage, including ditches, storm drains and underdrains are used to remove water from the roadbed, preventing it from weakening the subbase and subsoil.
Good maintenance practices center on keeping water out of the pavement, subbase and subsoil. Maintaining and cleaning ditches and storm drains will extend the life of the road at low cost. Sealing small cracks with bituminous crack sealer prevents water from enlarging cracks through frost weathering, or percolating down to the subbase and softening it.
For somewhat more distressed roads, a chip seal or similar surface treatment may be applied. As the number, width and length of cracks increases, more intensive repairs are needed. In order of generally increasing expense, these include thin asphalt overlays, multicourse overlays, grinding off the top course and overlaying, in-place recycling, or full-depth reconstruction of the roadway.
It is far less expensive to keep a road in good condition than it is to repair it once it has deteriorated. This is why some agencies place the priority on preventive maintenance of roads in good condition, rather than reconstructing roads in poor condition. Poor roads are upgraded as resources and budget allow. In terms of lifetime cost and long term pavement conditions, this will result in better system performance. Agencies that concentrate on restoring their bad roads often find that by the time they've repaired them all, the roads that were in good condition have deteriorated.
Some agencies use a pavement management system to help prioritize maintenance and repairs.
Asphalt concrete is often touted as being 100% recyclable. Very little asphalt concrete — less than 1 percent, according to a 2011 survey by the Federal Highway Administration and the National Asphalt Pavement Association — is actually disposed of in landfills.
There is asphalt recycling on a large scale (known as in-place asphalt recycling or asphalt recycling performed at a hot mix plant) and asphalt recycling on a smaller scale. For small scale asphalt recycling, the user separates asphalt material into three different categories:
Small scale asphalt recycling will usually involve high speed on-site asphalt recycling equipment or overnight soft heat asphalt recycling.
Small scale asphalt recycling is used when wanting to make smaller road repairs vs. large scale asphalt recycling which is done for making new asphalt or for tearing up old asphalt and simultaneously recycling / replacing existing asphalt. Recycled asphalt is very effective for pothole and utility cut repairs. The recycled asphalt will generally last as long or longer than the road around it as new asphalt cement has been added back to the material.
For larger scale asphalt recycling, several in-place recycling techniques have been developed to rejuvenate oxidized binders and remove cracking, although the recycled material is generally not very water-tight or smooth and should be overlaid with a new layer of asphalt concrete. Cold in-place recycling mills off the top layers of asphalt concrete and mixes the resulting loose millings with asphalt emulsion. The mixture is then placed back down on the roadway and compacted. The water in the emulsion is allowed to evaporate for a week or so, and new hot-mix asphalt is laid on top.
Asphalt concrete that is removed from a pavement is usually stockpiled for later use as aggregate for new hot mix asphalt at an asphalt plant. This reclaimed material, commonly known by the acronym 'RAP' for recycled or reclaimed asphalt pavement, is crushed to a consistent gradation and added to the HMA mixing process. Sometimes waste materials, such as asphalt roofing shingles, crushed glass, or rubber from old tires, are added to asphalt concrete as is the case with rubberized asphalt, but there is a concern that the hybrid material may not be recyclable.