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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/556

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THE POPULAR SCIENCE MONTHLY.

pregnating limestones. The last combination produces the mineral commonly called asphalt. When the bitumen contained in any of these substances is chemically isolated, it appears always a nearly identical substance, in composition, consistency, and appearance, except that the empyreumatic odor that characterizes it may become alliaceous in volcanic countries. Asphalt is doubtless one of the most considerable and valuable of the forms in which bitumen appears. It is a soft limestone, naturally and closely impregnated with that substance. When a specimen of it is examined under the microscope, each grain of it appears to be immersed in a pellicle of pure bitumen, by which it is cemented to the adjoining particles. It is thus a species of very fine-grained bituminous conglomerate. When a lump of this rock is heated to a temperature rising from 176° to 212°, the pellicle of bitumen is melted, the cohesion of the asphalt is destroyed, and it crumbles into dust. If it is taken while it is still hot, or if it is heated again after it has become cool, and strongly compressed, the particles will adhere again, and the stone will recover, after cooling, precisely the consistency and appearance it had originally. The employment of compressed asphalt for pavements is founded on this property.

Asphalt, or bituminous limestone, is generally found in the Jurassic strata, in regular beds of a lenticular shape, which are uniformly cut in two by a stream of water. Sometimes the bed is single, at other times it is multiple; there are formations containing seven beds, one above the other, and distinctly separated by strata of white limestone.

Different views prevail respecting the origin of asphalt and the circumstances under which it is formed. Some believe that the bitumen was already in existence when the calcareous formation took place, and that the particles of limestone were deposited in a bituminous sea. Others consider that the bituminous matter is derived from the organic matter associated with the shells that have furnished the carbonate of lime; and other more hazardous hypotheses have been advanced. A careful observation of asphaltic formations has led me to adopt what appears to me to be a more plausible theory.

It is permitted to suppose, from indications furnished by the study of bituminous districts, that in some geological epochs, which have yet been only imperfectly determined, accumulations of organic matter, buried under enormous masses of Jurassic limestone, and heated by the central fire, became vaporized, and in that condition sought a passage through the crust of the earth (Fig. 1). In time the crust cracked, and a fissure was formed. The bituminous vapors, compressed by incalculable pressure, forced themselves through the way that was opened to them, and passed by such strata as were too compact to be penetrated; but, when they reached the oölite, they found on either side of the fissure beds of a limestone soft enough to admit of their impregnating it (Fig. 2). As long as the pressure lasted, the bitumen con-