Quality Asphalt Tools and Equipment

The Asphalt Institute: Celebrating 90 years of service to the asphalt industry

Founded in 1919, the Asphalt Institute is a U.S.-based association of international petroleum asphalt/bitumen producers, manufacturers, and affiliated businesses. The Asphalt Institute’s mission is to promote the use, benefits, and quality performance of petroleum asphalt, through environmental, marketing, research, engineering and technical development, and through the resolution of issues affecting the industry.

“The history of the Asphalt Institute closely parallels the history of the asphalt industry,” says Pete Grass, AI President. “In its beginning, the Institute was the primary association spearheading the technical, educational and promotional programs for the industry.” Ninety years later, the Institute celebrates this anniversary by bringing you a look at our past with an eye toward our future.

Getting Started
The rapid growth of the automotive industry in the early 1900s brought about its own set of complexities, including the destruction of America’s existing dirt roads. There was no way to keep up with the maintenance of dirt roads. Engineers were faced with the challenge of building roads that would not turn to mud or dust.

By 1919, more and more refiners were producing asphalt. These producers began to recognize the need to form an association to promote their product to engineers and the public. In the spring of that year, J.R. Draney of the U.S. Asphalt Refining Company and W.W. McFarland of Warner-Quinlan invited a group of petroleum refiners and paving contractors to discuss forming an asphalt association. On May 16, 1919, in New York City, 11 companies founded the Asphalt Association, as the Asphalt Institute was originally named.

When World War I ended in 1919, use of the automobile was steadily rising, but roads outside the city limits were frequently too muddy or dusty for travel. The cure for these roads included road oils and asphalt. States, counties and cities all needed technical information about how to properly apply road oils and asphalt. The Asphalt Association met this challenge by providing Construction Leaflets and “how to” information to states and local agencies.

Too Many Grades
By 1920, there were a number of asphalt producers and asphalt grades. Specifications proliferated — there were 102 different asphalt penetration grades. One of the Association’s first major contributions was to help reduce the number of asphalt grades. In 1922, the Asphalt Association worked with the Commerce Department to reduce the 102 different grades down to just 9.

Farm-to-Market Roads
People had been talking about getting the farmer out of the mud for years, but a partnership between the Asphalt Association and the Farm Bureau was the first to actually do it. The muddy and dusty farm roads were stabilized by the use of local aggregates and cutback asphalt. Likewise, the technical work and investigative analysis of the Association during this time focused on research and promotion of a new type of liquid asphalt, Medium Curing (MC) cutback asphalt. MC was widely and effectively used in low cost road construction.

Demand Grows
In the 1930s, as the number of vehicles on the road and demand for asphalt pavements increased dramatically, so did the need for technical information. The Asphalt Institute, as it was now known, supplied a steady stream of information about the proper uses of asphalt. Between 1930 and 1937, the Institute published 155 booklets and pamphlets explaining the numerous uses of asphalt. The Asphalt Pocket Reference for Highway Engineers, first published in the 20s, became the forerunner of MS-4: The Asphalt Handbook, which is still an industry standard today. The seventh edition of MS-4 is currently available at www.asphaltinstitute.org.

During World War II, Asphalt Institute engineers were quick to assist the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with training in asphalt construction and the proper maintenance of heavy-duty airfields. Following the war, as these engineers returned to work in agencies and state highway departments, they continued to rely on the Institute for advice and assistance on road and airfield planning.

The Turnpike Era
The promotional efforts of the Asphalt Institute in the late 1940s helped to usher in the era of the turnpike, and the Maine Turnpike, constructed in 1947, was an important milestone.

Maine Turnpike design engineers had assumed that it would be built with concrete, but they were interested in the idea of using asphalt. They decided to ask for alternate bids of both concrete and asphalt. AI engineers recommended a mechanically stabilized base with a dense-graded asphalt surface. The alternate bids showed a large cost advantage by using asphalt—large enough that the Maine Highway Department chose asphalt for the entire length of their Turnpike.

In 1949, the New Jersey Turnpike yielded a similar success story. When the Turnpike Authority compared concrete and asphalt bids, asphalt presented a substantial savings of $5.5 million. AI engineers convinced even hardened concrete advocates that asphalt was the appropriate choice, and the Authority awarded every section of the 118-mile Turnpike to asphalt.

Oklahoma, Kansas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut and Florida quickly followed with toll roads and parkways built with asphalt. Many of the heroes of the turnpike era were Asphalt Institute engineers.

As well, in 1949, AI first published the Asphalt Institute Quarterly, its national magazine that later became known as Asphalt Magazine.

The Interstate System
After World War II, full-scale automobile production resumed along with major levels of road maintenance and new highway construction. Massive resurfacing programs began but could barely keep up with post-war travel demands. By 1950, vehicle registration exceeded 40 million cars and 8 million trucks.

In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the Federal-Aid Highway Act and launched the Interstate System to create an infrastructure highway program unmatched anywhere in the world. Institute engineers responded quickly and arranged meetings with highway engineers to discuss the initial cost, life expectancy, maintenance, economy, and durability of asphalt pavements. As a result of these meetings, many state highway departments specified asphalt for their part of the Interstate System.

Additionally, the Institute’s Board of Directors strategized the best way to inform the traveling public of the advantages of asphalt pavement. Competition was fierce, and AI responded with a massive ad campaign for the Velvet Ride focusing on the smoothness of the asphalt surface. Those ads appeared in magazines and newspapers such as Engineering News Record, The Saturday Evening Post, Life, Good Housekeeping and The Wall Street Journal.

New Uses for Asphalt
Building on the success of Interstate roadways, AI engineers encouraged Full-Depth asphalt street construction in scores of U.S. cities in the 1960s. The Institute also focused efforts on other uses of asphalt. Seaport loading areas used asphalt to handle 30,000-pound wheel-loads. Tennis courts, bicycle paths, racetracks, playgrounds and football fields were constructed with asphalt. And asphalt surfaces were ideal for speedway racetracks, allowing speeds in excess of 150 miles per hour. With low cost, low maintenance, versatility, and a quick drying surface, asphalt was recognized as an ideal material for recreational surfaces.

Recycling and Emulsions
The Asphalt Institute turned its focus to environmental and regulatory concerns in the 70s. With the help of V.P. Puzinauskas (AI Research Engineer) and Luke Corbett (Exxon Corporation Research Division), a viscosity grading system was developed to better measure asphalt characteristics. Switching from penetration to viscosity grading allowed engineers to develop a more uniform method of measurement for better quality asphalt.

By the mid-70s, a national move to conserve energy and materials initiated a widespread interest in recycling of pavement materials. AI engineers promoted hot and cold recycling around the U.S.

The Clean Air Act of 1977 lead to a reduction of the use of cutback asphalts, and engineers turned to the Asphalt Institute, FHWA, and the Asphalt Emulsion Manufacturers Association for help with information about asphalt emulsions. Together, these organizations created The Basic Emulsion Manual (MS-19). Additionally, they hosted workshops for training personnel which allowed for an organized transition from cutbacks to asphalt emulsions.

Superpave’s Champion
The Strategic Highway Research Program (SHRP) was established by the U.S. Congress in 1987 to improve the performance and durability of roads. Superpave (Superior Performing Asphalt Pavements) was a $50 million product of the SHRP effort. The Superpave system incorporated performance-based asphalt materials characterization with the design environmental conditions to improve performance by controlling rutting, low temperature cracking and fatigue cracking.

The Federal Highway Administration contracted with the Asphalt Institute as the National Asphalt Training Center (NATC) for Superpave technology. The NATC developed and delivered week-long training courses in Superpave binder and mix design technology.

In the 1990s, AI also worked to promote the benefits of new asphalt applications, including fish hatcheries, water reservoirs, landfill liners and caps, and environmental holding ponds.

Leading for the Future
Today, the Asphalt Institute continues its role as a center of excellence for research, engineering and education in support of the asphalt industry. With an array of new publications and Asphalt Academy courses offered across North America, AI is a leading industry resource for technical information, training and research. Working together with other national associations, international organizations and local agencies, AI continues to ensure that asphalt remains a long-lasting, high-quality, and environmentally sound material for the pavement of the future.

And the Asphalt Institute is thriving with 93 member companies, says Ralph Shirts (ExxonMobil), 2009 Asphalt Institute Chairman. “With a dedicated staff, strong membership base and support of the member companies in our committees, AI is well-positioned to serve the needs of its members and the industry for decades to come,” he says.

This is the first in a series of articles celebrating the Asphalt Institute’s 90 years of contributions to the asphalt industry.


John Davis and Nancy Griffin are Contributing Editors for Asphalt Magazine.