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In the fast lane: How roads conserve resources

Reading time: 4 min

It is a sticky, viscous, jet-black mass. Most of the time we only come into contact with it in passing, when it smokes, steams and smells – especially now in summer with all the roadworks underway.

Put bluntly, bitumen does not make the best first impression. But the dark hydrocarbon mixture has a lot of upsides as well. The higher its quality, the rarer the congestion on the highway. Because high-quality bitumen – or polymer-modified bitumen – extends the life of our roads and is easy to reuse. Which means it also helps to conserve resources.

Our expressways and highways need to withstand a lot: Vast temperature fluctuations, heat, rain, snow, ice and thousands of vehicles speeding over them every day. Almost 80 percent of EU-wide freight is transported by road, and the increase in heavy goods traffic in particular is a strain and a real test of endurance for the road surface, which mostly consists of asphalt: A mixture of stone, sand and bitumen. 

How the oldest petroleum product keeps evolving

There are few at OMV who know more about bitumen than Markus Spiegl. Together with a small team of experts, he has been working for many years not only on selling the product internationally, but also on continuously improving it. That’s why today, from here to Bulgaria, people know: Starfalt® PmB means premium bitumen from OMV

“The higher the quality of the bitumen, the longer the life of the road surface. The math is simple: Lower maintenance means lower emissions, environmental impact and resource consumption.”
Markus Spiegl, Advisor Pricing & Business Development Black Products 

When asphalt needs to be especially durable

Starfalt is produced in the Schwechat Refinery and in the blending plant in Szekesfehervar (Hungary). Here, special, high-quality crude oils are carefully distilled and processed. The basic bitumen is used in regular road construction as well as in the form of bitumen insulation membranes for sealing bridges or industrial roofs. 

Then we have a product which is know as polymer-modified bitumen: This is the name given to bitumen to which plastics (polymers) have been added for greater elasticity – thereby making the asphalt more resistant and less prone to cracking. “This premium binder was developed in our laboratory using special recipes and is known on the market as Starfalt® PmB”, says Markus Spiegl. The product is used wherever road surfaces are exposed to particularly high stresses – for example on expressways, highways, airport runways or in areas with a high proportion of heavy traffic.

In addition to the longer service life of the asphalt, it is also the consistently high quality that makes the product so popular on the market. “The advantage of this is that our customers do not have to constantly adjust their recipes during the next processing stage”, says Markus Spiegl.

Recycling even more asphalt with premium bitumen

One thing that is, however, being constantly adjusted is the product’s footprint. On the one hand, an even road surface without cracks and rutting ensures lower rolling resistance and thereby lower fuel consumption. On the other hand, Starfalt PmB® RC was developed 13 years ago – RC stands for recycled. “In 2010, we tested Starfalt PmB® RC on the first test tracks. Every few years we take cores and examine them; what we learn from this is used in the next product development step. Because we want to keep improving the quality of our bitumen, not least because of the circular economy and to meet the goals of our Strategy 2030”. The better and more precise the quality of the bitumen, the more used asphalt can be recycled. 

“Using Starfalt PmB® RC has already led up to 25 percent less bitumen being needed on these construction projects.”
Markus Spiegl, Advisor Pricing & Business Development Black Products 

Research projects and innovation 

Other bitumen product innovations ensure that asphalt can be laid at lower temperatures. Instead of the previous 150 degrees, it can be processed at just 120 degrees, which means considerable energy savings.

In a joint research project with the Christian Doppler Laboratory for Chemo-mechanical Analysis of Bituminous Materials at the Vienna University of Technology, Markus Spiegl and his colleagues are also asking the questions: How does bitumen age? What needs to change so we can extend the long service life even further? 

At the same time, an internal research project is underway to try to replace the additives used in Starfalt® PmB production with alternative substances that have a lower footprint. “The project is promising. We expect it to be ready for market in about two years and allow us to reduce the carbon footprint by another 20 to 30 percent – while maintaining the same quality, of course”, says Markus Spiegl.

And so, while bitumen may very well be the oldest petroleum product, that does not mean that it cannot be continuously improved. 

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