Controlling Voids in Mineral Aggregate (VMA)

Considerable effort is being made to reduce costs and amount of hydrocarbons that go into hot mixed asphalt (HMA) pavements. One such effort is to find ways to mix and compact at a lower temperature thus reducing the amount of fuel required. However, saving fuel can also be obtained by reducing the amount of asphalt used as asphalt can also be sold as a component of heavy fuel oil or cracked to make diesel, gasoline etc.

Mix Design.

Irrespective of the type of mix design or the amount of modification of the asphalt, the basic properties for an acceptable product remains the same. If we get down to basics, we want the gradation to be such that it inhibits rutting, want the gradation in the # 30 sieve size to be such that there isn’t a lack of material in that area and want the composition of the binder to be such that the film thickness is somewhere between 7 and 10 microns (based upon our experience. Idaho specifies 6 microns as a minimum) and, for example for a ½” nominal design, an effective asphalt content of 4-5%.

Trade off between % Asphalt and VMA. As the VMA increases, the % asphalt  required increases at a rate of about 0.25% per each percent of increased VMA, the exact amount depending on the actual specific gravities of the aggregate and asphalt. For a 400 ton an hour plant, the reduction of the VMA of 1% would reduce the asphalt by one ton per hour or a savings of $500/hour if asphalt is $500/ton.

Silliness of the “Forbidden Zone”. Some Superpave gradation specifications have a “forbidden zone” for the gradation through which the gradation must not go. It is supposed to be on the maximum density line (on the 0.45 power gradation curve) of the aggregate; however, in addition to being silly, it doesn’t even fall on the actual maximum density curve for the job mix formula.

Effect of RAP on VMA. With the introduction of SUPERPAVE the VMA, which used to be 13% if one was used, was increased to 14%. We were having problems in being able to make the 14% with granite aggregate, and found that we had to control this by blowing out -#200 material. On one project I used a factorial experimental design to aid in adjusting the gradation with considerable success. This allows evaluating the effect of numerous variables on mix properties. Of course saving money by reducing the VMA was not an option. With the introduction of RAP, however, the VMAs rose by as much as 2%, requiring as much as 0.5% more total asphalt (including that in the RAP).

Reducing VMA to Reduce Cost

A number of years ago I did a Gram-Schmidt orthogonalization on gradation data. I found that there were only three truly independent variables, one of which was the % -#200 material. By using three independent aggregate criteria and % asphalt as a fourth variable we should be able to determine what changes should be made in the mix to minimize the VMA within the specification criteria, thus minimizing cost. I would suggest the use of a 24 factorial design with triplicate centerpoint to find the most economical gradation. The following would be for a ½” nominal mix design. For variables I would use: 1) the % of the gradation between the ½” and the #4 screens; 2) the % of the gradation between the #4 and #30; 3) the  % -#200; and 4) the % asphalt. We have found that a Hveem compaction at the recommended compaction temperatures for a 75 gyration Superpave design give the same results as the gyratory compaction. We would suggest that this be done, therefore, with the Hveem compactor as it uses only 1/4th as much aggregate and asphalt as does the 6” gyratory design however gyratory compaction could be used. The advantage of the Hveem is we can also get as a bonus the stability. I would stipulate that one of the boundary limits would be that no gradation point should be above a line on the gradation curve (0.45 power graph) from the % passing through the first sieve that retains aggregate (1/2”) to the % passing of the #200 sieve. This would provide the information needed to minimize the VMA within the specification. The results could provide the starting gradation and asphalt needed for a gyratory design.

Decreasing the VMA from 16.5 to 14.5% for 100,000 tons of mix would save $ 250,000 of $500/ ton asphalt.

Petroleum Sciences, Inc. has the equipment and mathematical knowledge (as there is considerable mathematics involved) to provide a service should a contractor wish to reduce costs. We can set up the experiment to be done in the contractors own facility and then evaluate the results or do the complete project in our facilities.

Robert L. Dunning,,




Neither One is a Single Material


Asphalt and asphaltenes are names that show up in articles and papers discussing paving and roofing materials. Especial with people not very familiar with technical field, discussions often sound like each is a single well define material such as salt or water. However that is far from the fact. Some may even feel that asphaltenes are something in the way that needs to be isolated or corralled. Yet they are vital in controlling the properties of an asphalt. Also researchers may reach conclusions on an asphalt from a particular crude source and believe that those conclusions pertain to all asphalts.


Asphalt is the part of crude oil that is left when all the other hydrocarbons have been removed. There are two main ways of separating the asphalt from the gasoline, kerosene and oils; distilling, and solvent extraction.

Source. The properties of a particular unmodified asphalt are controlled by the source of the crude oil. The differences can be profound. In California there are three crude sources that produce entirely different asphalts: California Valley, Coastal and LA Basin. Within those broad designations are subgroups such as the coastal crudes; Santa Maria and San Ardo. A specification can be developed such that it can be met by asphalts from all three sources however they will perform differently. There are some asphalts that have very poor cold temperature performance and others that perform very badly in hot weather.

Distillation. In the distillation of crude oil, one pipe goes into the distillation towers, and a number of pipes come out. Each tower system is designed for a particular crude or crude blend and there are pumps removing the products. What is left over is asphalt on the bottom of the tower also. Some crude oils have no asphalts while others may contain as much as 65% asphalt. If any one of the storage tanks gets full, the refinery has to shut down.

Propane Extraction. The other method is to extract the non-asphalt portion with propane.


One of the components of asphalt is the asphaltenes. Here we have two problems: the misconception that asphaltenes are significantly different than other asphalt components, and the basic definition. While some methods define asphaltenes as n-pentane insoluble material, other methods use hexane or heptane or even iso-octane as the solvent. n-Pentane will produce the largest amount. Because certain asphaltenes are precipitated by a solvent doesn’t mean that there aren’t still other materials in the asphalt that are very similar to asphaltenes. Asphaltenes give body to the asphalt. If the asphaltenes are completely solvated, the asphalt won’t perform well. On the other hand, if they are in a second phase, again the asphalt may cause problems. In some cases, the asphaltenes will be at least solvated sufficiently at ambient temperatures for a single phase to be present, however they may form two phases in cold conditions, resulting in cracking in winter.


The addition of polymer modifiers further complicates the situation. Adding a polymer to any asphalt will result in two phases no matter how well the asphaltenes are solvated. When polymer modification was young problems with phase separation was a problem that had to be resolved. It can be seen that with a wide range of properties in asphalts, polymer modification can be more of an art than a science. One question I have is how well modified asphalts will perform in low temperatures even though they pass all of the low temperature test. For pavements to resist low temperature cracking the binder must be able to stress relax faster than thermal stresses build up. If the binder becomes more like a plastic with a yield force necessary, the pavement will crack.

Robert L. Dunning,,



Raveling is the loss of the mastic matrix in the surface of a pavement. This would be expected to occur with time but is aggravated by the presence of water. If the aggregate surface is not protected from water, traffic will cause raveling. This can be seen near curbs where often water is flowing. The asphalt is not pulled off but is floated off.

Water, a blessing and a bane! To get compaction in a subgrade or base, the water content must be at an option. A blessing. Even with cold recycling systems, the total liquid content (including water) must be optimum to get proper compaction. A blessing again. Obviously we love water, especially on a hot day. If we had a choice of a cool glass of water or a glass of warm lard, we would obviously choose water. Most aggregates are no different. If they have a choice, they would choose water to imbibe into their pores, not asphalt.

Our production system forcibly removes water from aggregate and equally forcibly makes the aggregate accept asphalt. That doesn’t make the aggregate happy and if it has the chance it will invite water back in through any defect in the coating and gleefully kick the asphalt off. Many aggregates have hydroxyl groups sticking out on the surface, which attracts water. In addition there may be water loving sodium and potassium exchangeable ions on the surfaces. These ions are the result of defects in the silicate and aluminate structure in the aggregate. In the silicate structure there may be an aluminum atom instead of silicon resulting in a structural negative charge. Likewise a magnesium atom may replace aluminum in the aluminate structure.

To combat this, amines or lime can be added to change the nature of the aggregate surface. Unfortunately, the protection may not last, especially if salt or magnesium chloride is used for deicing. The chemical principle of mass action can reverse the action of these antistrips. One solution has been to graph onto the aggregate surface an organosilicon material that actually becomes an integral part of the aggregate and thus cannot be dislodged. The aggregate then changes allegiance so strongly that it actually forcibly rejects water and opens its pores to the asphalt.

So to control raveling, the adverse affect of water must be controlled. This is especially important with raveling as it occurs on the surface where the pavement will be often in contact with water. The best solution is to persuade the aggregates to distain the advances of their first love and turn to a new one that is not so transparent.

Robert L. Dunning,,