Paving a greener path for road construction and maintenance

Viva Energy’s steadfast commitment to sustainable bitumen solutions and continuous exploration of innovative alternatives is making a significant impact in reducing carbon emissions within the road construction and maintenance sector.

Viva Energy is dedicated to mitigating the environmental impact of industries throughout Australia by offering an evolving and expanding range of lower carbon and opt-in carbon-neutral solutions across its fuels, solvents, and now bitumen.

Bitumen, an engineering material, is vital for the country’s ongoing road network development and upkeep. While bitumen has minimal climate impact once a road is built and is 100 per cent recyclable, the production process and the use of heated bitumen during construction result in significant carbon emissions. This environmental concern has spurred both suppliers and constructors to actively seek out and explore greener alternatives.

Nigel Preston, bitumen technical manager at Viva Energy Australia, has been working in bitumen-related roles since the early 1990’s. With his long-standing commitment to this field, he emphasises the pivotal role of Viva Energy’s bitumen business in supporting the road construction sector’s net-zero goals.

“As a key bitumen supplier for the road construction and maintenance sector in Australia, Viva Energy has been diligently working on solutions for lower carbon and opt-in carbon-neutral bitumen,” says Preston. “Our current offerings include two sustainable bitumen solutions, brought to market following comprehensive development and analysis: opt-in carbon-neutral bitumen and crumb rubber binder bitumen.”

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The bitumen asphalt industry actively promotes sustainability through the incorporation of various waste materials into road construction. One notable example is Viva Energy’s crumb rubber binder bitumen, which incorporates recycled tyre rubber. This effectively reduces tyre waste, helping to address the construction industry’s escalating waste challenge.

Crumb rubber is an excellent material for road construction because it forms a strong bond between its components and the molecular elements in the bitumen, enhancing its properties and reducing the amount of bitumen required by replacing some of it by mass. It’s essential to recognise that crumb rubber alone cannot be used to construct a road, explains Preston. Nevertheless, there is an ongoing effort to incorporate more rubber into bitumen. The key lies in finding the right balance, adding rubber for additional sustainability benefits without compromising material properties or making it more challenging to work with.

“Crumb rubber-modified bitumen binders have gained widespread adoption in road construction, thanks to their proven performance,” says Preston. “Crumb rubber serves as a sustainable alternative to traditional polymers for enhancing the engineering properties of bitumen.”

“Unlike traditional polymers, which are typically virgin materials, crumb rubber replaces the need for such resources, reducing the overall carbon footprint of bitumen.”

At the current time, Viva Energy has taken steps to certify a number of fuels, solvents and bitumen products as carbon neutral through certification with the accredited body Climate Active. Carbon-neutral products are ‘opt-in’ meaning that they are not the default product purchase but need to be specifically requested.

Viva Energy offers the range of AS2008 C class bitumen as carbon-neutral options to assist the sustainability initiatives within the bitumen customer base.

The company’s dedication to responsible corporate citizenship drives its commitment to developing sustainable bitumen solutions and exploring future trends and alternatives. With the introduction of opt-in carbon-neutral bitumen and crumb rubber binder bitumen, Viva Energy has already made significant strides in promoting sustainability within the industry and remains focused on future innovations.

“When we consider the future and the broader context of decarbonisation and sustainability, bitumen emerges as an intriguing material,” says Preston. “In the oil industry, it’s widely acknowledged that the use of fossil-derived fuels is on a decline, whether that transition occurs in 10 years or 25 years.”

“It is unlikely that petrol and diesel-based vehicles will remain prevalent in 25 years – nevertheless, the need for road infrastructure to transport goods and people will persist.

“This raises a fundamental question: what will the roads of the future be constructed from?”

Paving a greener path for road construction and maintenance
Viva Energy’s Geelong Bitumen Gantry Loading Facility. (Image: Viva Energy)

Currently, it’s challenging to anticipate a sustainable alternative to bitumen in a net-zero world. However, Viva Energy is proactively engaging in research and development efforts to position itself as a leader in emerging solutions. One promising avenue being explored is the production of bitumen using unconventional feedstocks, in contrast to the traditional fossil hydrocarbons derived from crude oil, which in recent times have dominated the bitumen production landscape. There are already some examples of such solutions in the current market.

Some companies, for instance, have developed a bio-component binder that allows them to produce a bitumen alternative with a reduced carbon footprint by incorporating biogenic carbon. However, the adoption of this biogenic alternative is still in its early stages, and its future potential remains to be fully realised.

“As a binder supplier, we need to assess the future prospects of this material, ensuring it aligns with the quality standards essential for road construction and maintenance,” says Preston. “If we can develop a bitumen-like material derived from sustainable sources like biomass, with a lower carbon footprint than conventional options, it would be a substantial stride towards decarbonisation, benefiting society and the industry.”

“This is an active area of exploration for both us and the sector.”

While there will be ongoing pressure to utilise repurposed materials from society’s waste, Preston says it is imperative that suppliers exercise caution, not only with regard to quality and performance but also from the standpoint of health, safety and environmental considerations.

“One of the key features of bitumen and asphalt is their 100 per cent recyclability,” says Preston. “Therefore, it’s essential not to introduce any elements that could compromise the recyclability of bitumen.”

“In theory, the bitumen we produce will continue to serve as a component of roads indefinitely, because of its recyclability.

“We are committed to ensuring that all materials used in opt-in carbon-neutral bitumen, crumb rubber binder bitumen, and future biogenic bitumen will remain 100 per cent recyclable.”

Viva Energy is diligently evaluating sustainable alternatives to bitumen, like biogenic binders, to ensure that their carbon footprint is significantly lower than that of traditional bitumen before commercialising. Otherwise, Preston explains, there could be a situation where a bio-binder is produced, but its embedded carbon is greater than that of traditional bitumen.

“The process of carbon accounting is still in its early stage, so all of these processes and alternatives need to be thoroughly looked at to ensure that we, as a supplier, not only operate responsibly but also provide products that genuinely deliver the sustainability benefits we intend to claim,” says Preston. “To assess the suitability of current and emerging bitumen alternatives for the dual purpose of road construction and environmental benefit, it is imperative that suppliers conduct a rigorous carbon accounting process.”

This process involves a thorough examination of carbon footprints and embedded carbon, providing greater clarity regarding which materials are optimal for road construction and maintenance while simultaneously reducing emissions.

“If this practice becomes widespread, the industry’s transition towards sustainable alternatives will occur more quickly and seamlessly,” says Preston. “We need to explore alternative feedstocks for bitumen and assess their suitability for bitumen production at Viva Energy’s Geelong Refinery, before introducing them to the market.”

Viva Energy’s customers are increasingly interested in sustainable bitumen options, but they are price-conscious in their choices. When new products like opt-in carbon-neutral bitumen enter the market, potential customers may be hesitant due to concerns about their cost-effectiveness, despite their carbon neutrality aspect.

“Change requires effort, eagerness and collaboration,” says Preston. “If we aim to reduce carbon emissions within the road construction and maintenance industry, a collective effort from manufacturers, suppliers and customers alike is required.”

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