Bitumen vs. Coal Tar

What's the Difference?

Bitumen and coal tar are both dark, viscous substances commonly used in various industries. However, they differ in their origins and properties. Bitumen is a naturally occurring material derived from petroleum, while coal tar is a byproduct of coal processing. Bitumen is primarily used in road construction and waterproofing applications due to its adhesive and waterproofing properties. On the other hand, coal tar is commonly used in the production of roofing materials, paints, and sealants. It is known for its high resistance to chemicals and UV radiation. While both bitumen and coal tar have their unique applications, they share the common characteristic of being highly durable and long-lasting materials.


Photo by Denis Agati on Unsplash
AttributeBitumenCoal Tar
SourceNaturally occurring or derived from petroleumByproduct of coal processing
AppearanceViscous liquid or semi-solidThick, black, sticky liquid
UsagePrimarily used in road construction and roofingUsed in pavement sealants, roofing, and waterproofing
Chemical CompositionComplex mixture of hydrocarbonsComplex mixture of organic compounds
Environmental ImpactCan release harmful fumes when heatedContains toxic substances and can contaminate soil and water
Health EffectsProlonged exposure may cause skin irritationExposure to coal tar fumes may cause respiratory issues
Coal Tar
Photo by tim on Unsplash

Further Detail


Bitumen and coal tar are two commonly used materials in various industries, particularly in construction and road paving. While both substances are dark and viscous, they have distinct differences in terms of their origin, composition, properties, and applications. In this article, we will explore and compare the attributes of bitumen and coal tar, shedding light on their unique characteristics and uses.

Origin and Composition

Bitumen, also known as asphalt, is a naturally occurring substance derived from the distillation of crude oil. It is a complex mixture of hydrocarbons, primarily consisting of polycyclic aromatic compounds. On the other hand, coal tar is a byproduct of the carbonization of coal during the production of coke. It is obtained through the destructive distillation of coal, resulting in a thick, black liquid composed of various organic compounds.

Physical Properties

Bitumen and coal tar exhibit different physical properties due to their distinct compositions. Bitumen is typically a semi-solid material at room temperature, but it becomes more fluid when heated. It has a relatively low melting point, ranging from 100 to 150 degrees Celsius. In contrast, coal tar is a highly viscous liquid that remains in a liquid state at room temperature. It has a higher boiling point compared to bitumen, typically around 200 to 300 degrees Celsius.

Furthermore, bitumen has a higher density than coal tar, making it heavier. It has a specific gravity ranging from 0.97 to 1.02, depending on its composition. Coal tar, on the other hand, has a specific gravity ranging from 1.12 to 1.20. These differences in physical properties contribute to variations in their handling, transportation, and application methods.

Chemical Properties

Chemically, bitumen and coal tar differ in terms of their composition and behavior. Bitumen is primarily composed of hydrocarbons, including aromatic compounds, as well as sulfur, nitrogen, and oxygen-containing compounds. It is relatively resistant to chemical reactions and degradation, making it a durable material for various applications.

Coal tar, on the other hand, contains a wide range of organic compounds, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These PAHs are known to be carcinogenic and pose environmental concerns. Due to its chemical composition, coal tar requires careful handling and disposal to prevent contamination and potential health risks.


Bitumen and coal tar find applications in different industries and sectors. Bitumen is widely used in road construction and maintenance, where it serves as a binder in asphalt concrete. It provides durability, flexibility, and resistance to weathering, making it suitable for various climates and traffic conditions. Bitumen is also used in roofing materials, waterproofing membranes, and as a protective coating for pipes and tanks.

Coal tar, on the other hand, has more specialized applications. It is commonly used in the manufacturing of coal tar pitch, which is utilized in the production of electrodes, carbon black, and other industrial products. Coal tar is also used in the preservation of wood, as it acts as a wood preservative and protects against decay and insect damage.

Environmental Impact

When considering the environmental impact, bitumen and coal tar have different implications. Bitumen, being derived from crude oil, contributes to carbon emissions and the depletion of fossil fuel resources. However, advancements in technology have led to the development of more sustainable and eco-friendly bitumen production methods, such as the use of recycled materials and bio-based binders.

Coal tar, on the other hand, poses greater environmental concerns due to its composition and potential toxicity. The presence of PAHs in coal tar raises issues of soil and water contamination, as well as air pollution during its production and application. Proper handling, disposal, and adherence to environmental regulations are crucial to mitigate these risks.


In conclusion, bitumen and coal tar are distinct materials with unique attributes and applications. Bitumen, derived from crude oil, is a semi-solid material with lower viscosity and density compared to coal tar. It is widely used in road construction, roofing, and waterproofing. Coal tar, obtained from coal carbonization, is a highly viscous liquid with higher viscosity and density. It finds applications in specialized industries such as electrode manufacturing and wood preservation.

While bitumen is more commonly used and has a lower environmental impact compared to coal tar, both materials require careful handling and consideration of their specific properties. Understanding the differences between bitumen and coal tar allows for informed decision-making in selecting the appropriate material for various applications, while also considering environmental and health factors.

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