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  1. Summary Lay Description

    Asphalt binder, or bitumen, is the glue that holds aggregate particles together to form a road surface. It is derived from the heavy residue that remains after distilling gasoline, diesel and other lighter products out of crude oil. Nevertheless, bitumen varies widely in composition and mechanical properties. To avoid expensive road failures, bitumen must be processed after distillation so that its mechanical properties satisfy diverse climate and load requirements. International standards now guide these mechanical properties, but yield varying long‐term performance as local source composition and preparation methods vary.In situdiagnostic methods that can predict bitumen performance independently of processing history are therefore needed. The present work focuses on one promising diagnostic candidate: microscopic observation of internal bitumen structure. Past bitumen microscopy has revealed microstructures of widely varying composition, size, shape and density. A challenge is distinguishing bulk microstructures, which directly influence a binder's mechanical properties, from surface microstructures, which often dominate optical microscopy because of bitumen's opacity and scanning‐probe microscopy because of its inherent surface specificity. In previously published work, we used infrared microscopy to enhance visibility of bulk microstructure. Here, as a foil to this work, we use visible‐wavelength microscopy together with atomic‐force microscopy (AFM) specifically to isolatesurfacemicrostructure, to understand its distinct origin and morphology, and to demonstrate its unique sensitivity to surface alterations. To this end, optical microscopy complements AFM by enabling us to observe surface microstructures form at temperatures (50°C–70°C) at which bitumen's fluidity prevents AFM, and to observe surface microstructure beneath transparent, but chemically inert, liquid (glycerol) and solid (glass) overlayers, which alter surface tension compared to free surfaces. From this study, we learned, first, that, as bitumen cools, distinctly wrinkled surface microstructures form at the same temperature at which independent calorimetric studies showed crystallization in bitumen, causing it to release latent heat of crystallization. This shows that surface microstructures are likely precipitates of the crystallizable component(s). Second, a glycerol overlayer on the cooling bitumen results in smaller, less wrinkled, sparser microstructures, whereas a glass overlayer suppresses them altogether. In contrast, underlying smaller bulk microstructures are unaffected. This shows that surface tension is the driving force behind formation and wrinkling of surface precipitates. Taken together, the work advances our ability to diagnose bitumen samples noninvasively by clearly distinguishing surface from bulk microstructure.

     
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