Researchers Find Sun and Rain Transform Asphalt Binder Into Potentially Toxic Compounds


A dramatic oil spill, such as the Deepwater Horizon accident in the Gulf of Mexico a decade ago, can dominate headlines for months while scientists, policymakers and the public fret over what happens to all that oil in the environment.

However, far less attention is paid to the fate of a petroleum product that has been spread deliberately across the planet for decades: asphalt binder. Now a study by chemists at the Florida State University-headquartered National High Magnetic Field Laboratory shows that asphalt binder, when exposed to sun and water, leaches thousands of potentially toxic compounds into the environment. The study was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology .

Asphalt binder, also called asphalt cement, is the glue that holds together the stones, sand and gravel in paved roads. The heavy, black, sticky goo is derived from bottom-of-the-barrel crude oil at the tail end of the distillation process.

The MagLab, funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida, is a world leader in the field of petroleomics, which studies the mind-numbingly complex hydrocarbons that make up crude oil and its byproducts. Using high-resolution ion cyclotron resonance (ICR) mass spectrometers, chemists there have developed expertise in identifying the tens of thousands of different types of molecules that a single drop can contain, and how that composition can be changed by time, bacteria or environmental conditions.

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