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# A THREE-DIMENSIONAL FINITE ELEMENT STUDY TO OBTAIN

## P-Y CURVES FOR SAND

Liangcai He
1
(Student Member, ASCE), Ahmed Elgamal
2
(Member, ASCE), Zhaohui Yang
3

(Member, ASCE), and Jinchi Lu
4
(Student Member, ASCE)
ABSTRACT
For pile foundations subjected to lateral loads, an analysis method should account for the response of
the combined soil-pile system. Current practice for pile-soil interaction analysis usually employs a series of
springs to model the lateral behavior of soil-pile interaction. In this method, the force (p) deformation (y)
function, widely known as p-y curve, of the spring characterizes the pile-soil interaction mechanism. For
linearly with depth. This paper presents a framework using three-dimensional finite element method (3D
FEM) nonlinear analysis to estimate the p-y curves response characteristics for sand. A linear analysis was
first conducted as a routine check on laterally loaded piles using the 3D FEM. A nonlinear 3D FEM was
then carried out to model full-scale field lateral pile response. Different meshes were examined to obtain a
reliable 3D FEM representation for pile-soil interaction. This procedure was subsequently used to study
p-y curves for sand under other conditions. It is found that at greater depth, p-y curves show some
conditions. In this pilot study, the initial slope of the p-y curves appeared to be about the same at different
depths.
Keywords: Laterally Loaded Piles, p-y curves, Sand, Three-Dimensional Finite Element Method
INTRODUCTION
The response of a laterally loaded pile is of critical relevance to foundation engineering under
earthquake loading conditions. The most commonly used approach to design and analyze such
pile response scenarios is the p-y method based on the Winkler beam on elastic foundation model

1
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Structural Engineering, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093,
USA. Email: lhe@ucsd.edu
2
Professor, Department of Structural Engineering, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA.
Email: elgamal@ucsd.edu
3
Assistant Research Scientist, Department of Structural Engineering, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla,
CA 92093, USA. Email: zhyang@ucsd.edu
4
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Structural Engineering, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093,
USA. Email: jinlu@ucsd.edu

2
(Fig. 1). In this method, the pile is modeled as a beam and the interaction between pile and soil is
modeled by a series of uncoupled nonlinear springs (e.g., McClelland and Focth 1958; Reese et
al. 1974; Bowles 1988). The force-deformation relationship of these nonlinear springs is widely
known as the p-y curve. Existing p-y curves were empirically back calculated from full-scale
field lateral load tests under specific conditions (e.g., Cox et al. 1974; Reese and Impe 2001). For
instance, the tests were often carried out in site-specific soil conditions and on free-head piles
with a relatively small pile diameter. These back calculated p-y curves were then extrapolated to
use for other conditions (Reese et al. 2000).

Prototype p-y method
FIG. 1. p-y method for laterally loaded piles (After Reese and Impe 2001).
Increasingly, the 3D FEM is being used as a tool for such soil-foundation-interaction (SFI)
problems. The method is quite versatile for simulation of piles under a variety of conditions. This
paper presents a pilot study for studying p-y curves characteristics at various conditions using the
3D FEM method. The 3D FEM simulation was conducted using the computer program CYCLIC
developed at the University of California, San Diego.

A linear 3D FEM study on laterally loaded piles was first conducted as a routine check.
Preliminary nonlinear 3D analyses on the widely referenced full-scale field lateral load test
conducted at the Mustang Island (Cox et al. 1974; Reese and Impe 2001) were then carried out to
study the pile response. P-y curves based on the nonlinear 3D FEM study were subsequently
synthesized.
MODEL DESCRIPTION
Finite element mesh
Taking advantage of symmetry, only half of the domain was meshed for the 3D FEM study. A
M
H
M
H

3
number of meshes were employed in the linear study. Figs 2-4 show meshes that were used in
conducting both linear and nonlinear studies. Table 1 lists the parameters of these two meshes.

Eight-node solid elements were used to model the soil and beam elements were used to model
the floating pile. Rigid beam elements with rigidity 1000 times larger than the pile rigidity were
used to connect the pile and the soil in order to model the pile size. No special pile-soil interface
elements were implemented since this is not required in the linear elastic cases and the employed
soil constitutive model itself plays this role in the nonlinear soil case. The boundary conditions
imposed on the mesh are:

- Nodes at the bottom of the mesh are fixed in all directions.
- Nodes on the plane of symmetry cannot displace out-of-plane.
- Nodes on the periphery of the mesh are fixed in both horizontal directions, yet remain free
to move vertically.

FIG. 2. 3D FEM mesh 1 used in conducting both linear and nonlinear studies.

4

FIG. 3. Pile head close up of mesh 1.

FIG. 4. Mesh 2 with a smaller domain size used in the 3D FEM nonlinear analysis.

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Table 1 Parameters of the two meshes (pile diameter = 0.6 m)
Bottom
boundary
from pile tip
Periphery
boundary
from pile
Number of
solid
elements
Number of
beam elements
for pile
Number of rigid
beam elements
for pile size
Mesh 1 in Figs. 2
and 3
6 m 60 m 3472 25 234
Mesh 2 in Fig. 4 6 m 15 m 1764 18 171
Soil Constitutive Model
In the linear study, the soil was modeled as an elastic isotropic material. The material is
characterized by two elastic constants, Youngs modulus E and Poissons ratio .

In the nonlinear study, a constitutive model able to reproduce salient sand response
characteristics including shear-induced nonlinearity and dilatancy (Parra 1996; Elgamal et al.
2003; He 2004) was employed. This soil constitutive model (Parra 1996; Yang and Elgamal 2002;
Elgamal et al. 2003; Yang et al. 2003) was based on the original multi-surface-plasticity theory
for frictional cohesionless soils (Prevost 1985). In this soil model, a number of similar conical
yield surfaces with different tangent shear moduli are employed to represent shear stress-strain
nonlinearity and the confinement dependence of shear stiffness and shear strength (Fig. 5).

FIG. 5. Conical yield surfaces for granular soils in principal stress space and
deviatoric plane (Prevost 1985; Lacy 1986; Parra 1996; Yang 2000).
The constitutive equation is written in incremental form as follows (Prevost 1985):
) ( :
p
E = '
(1)

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where ' is the rate of effective Cauchy stress tensor, the rate of deformation tensor,
p

the plastic rate of deformation tensor, and E the isotropic fourth-order tensor of elastic
coefficients. The rate of plastic deformation tensor is defined by:
p
= P L , where P is a
symmetric second-order tensor defining the direction of plastic deformation in stress space, L the
L =max(L, 0)). The loading function L is defined as: L = Q: ' / H'
where H'
is the plastic
modulus, and Q a unit symmetric second-order tensor defining yield-surface normal at the stress
point (i.e., Q= f f V V / ), where f is yield function.

The yield function f selected has the following form (Prevost 1985; Lacy 1986; Elgamal et al.
2003):
0 ) ( ) ) ( ( ) ) ( (
2
3
2
0
2
0 0
= ' + ' ' + ' ' + ' = p p M p p p p f s s : (2)
in the domain of 0 > ' p . The yield surfaces in principal stress space and deviatoric plane are
shown in Fig. 1. In eq. 2, s p' ' = is the deviatoric stress tensor, p' the mean effective
stress,
0
p' a small positive constant (1.0 kPa in this paper) such that the yield surface size
remains finite at 0 = ' p for numerical convenience (Fig. 5), a second-order kinematic
deviatoric tensor defining the surface coordinates, and M dictates the surface size. In the context
of multi-surface plasticity, a number of similar surfaces with a common apex form the hardening
zone (Fig. 5). Each surface is associated with a constant plastic modulus. Conventionally, the
low-strain (elastic) moduli and plastic moduli are postulated to increase in proportion to the
square root of p' (Prevost 1985).

A purely deviatoric kinematic hardening rule (Prevost 1985) is employed in order to generate
hysteretic response under cyclic shear loading. This kinematic rule dictates that all yield surfaces
may translate in stress space within the failure envelope (Hill 1950).

The flow rule is chosen so that the deviatoric component of flow P' = Q' (associative flow
rule in the deviatoric plane), and the volumetric component P' '
defines the desired amount of
dilation or contraction in accordance with experimental observations. During shear loading, the
soil contractive/dilative (dilatancy) behavior is handled by a non-associative flow rule (Elgamal
et al. 2003) so as to achieve appropriate interaction between shear and volumetric response.

The employed model has been extensively calibrated for clean Nevada Sand at
r
D
~
40%
(Elgamal et al. 2002). The calibration phase included results of monotonic and cyclic laboratory
tests, as well as data from level-ground and mildly inclined infinite-slope dynamic
centrifuge-model simulations.

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RESULTS OF ANALYSIS
Linear 3D FEM Analysis
Pile displacements at ground line and maximum moment from the linear 3D FEM analysis
are compared with the widely referenced solutions of Davies and Budhu (1986). Displacement
profile and moment distribution along the pile from the linear 3D FEM study were compared
with the rigorous continuum mechanics solution of Abedzadeh and Pak (2004). Results from
mesh 1 were in good agreement with these benchmark solutions (He 2004).
Nonlinear 3D FEM Analysis
A pilot nonlinear 3D FEM modeling of the well-known Mustang (near Corpus Christ, Texas)
full-scale field lateral-load pile test was conducted in this study (Cox et al. 1974; Reese and Impe
2001). The pile was a steel-pipe pile with a 0.61m outside diameter and a 0.095m wall thickness.
It was driven open-ended into the ground leading to an embedded length of 21m. The mechanical
properties of the pile were (Reese and Impe 2001): moment of inertial I
p
= 8.084510
-4
m
4
;
bending stiffness E
p
I
p
= 163,000 kN-m
2
; yield moment = 640 kN-m; and ultimate moment M
ult
=
828 kN-m. Soil at the site was uniformly graded, fine sand with a friction angle of 39 degrees.
The submerged unit weight was 10.4 kN/m
3
. Water table was maintained at 0.15 m or so above
the ground line throughout the tests. Lateral load was applied at 0.305 m above the ground line
(Cox et al. 1974; Reese and Impe 2001).

In the 3D mesh, the pile was modeled as a linear elastic beam with the above mechanical
properties. Lateral load at increments of 1 kN was applied at 0.305 m above the ground line. The
final lateral load was 280 kN, below which the pile behaved linearly (Cox et al. 1974; Reese and
Impe 2001). Table 2 lists the main soil constitutive parameters in addition to above soil properties
used in nonlinear modeling.
Table 2 Soil Constitutive Parameters for Mustang Island Lateral Pile Test Analysis
Parameter Value
Submerged unit weight 10.4 kN/m
3

Reference mean pressure p
0
80 kPa
Shear modulus G
0
at p
0
90,000 kPa
Poissons ratio 0.4
Pressure dependence coefficient n
p
0.5
Friction angle | 39
Number of yield surfaces 18

Fig. 6 shows the deformed mesh 2 at lateral load 200 kN exaggerated 50 times. Soil heave in
front of the pile and settlement behind the pile are observed, which is consistent with field
observation. It is also noted that the soil very close to the pile, about 3 pile diameters in the lateral
direction and 5 pile diameters in depth, has undergone significant deformation.

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FIG. 6. Deformed mesh 2 (exaggerated 50 times) at lateral load 200 kN.
Fig. 7 shows the comparisons of experimental and computed pile deflection at ground line. Good
agreement between experimental and computed response is observed. Fig. 7 shows that mesh 1 is
somewhat softer than the mesh 2 as expected, since mesh 1 has a larger lateral domain size and
also has more beam elements representing the pile. Fig. 8 shows the lateral pile response
computed using meshes 1 and 2, where the soil pressure is determined by differentiating the
shear force with respect to depth. Figures 7 and 8 show that the results from mesh 1 and 2 are
quite close. Mesh 2 was used afterward to study p-y curves in order to save computing time.

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FIG. 7. Comparison of experimental and computed pile deflection at ground line.

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(a) Mesh 1

(b) Mesh 2
FIG. 8. Computed response at lateral load 20, 60, 100, 140, 180, 220, and 260 kN.

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P-y curve from Nonlinear 3D FEM Analysis
As mentioned earlier, the p-y curve is the force-deformation relationship of the springs
representing soil-pile interaction. In this relationship, p is lateral soil pressure per unit pile length
and y is pile displacement. The lateral soil pressure p can be determined by differentiating the
shear forces obtained from 3D FEM with respect to depth. The associated pile displacement can
be directly obtained from 3D FEM. Fig. 8 shows the 3D FEM nonlinear analysis obtained
relationships. The corresponding p-y curves are easily synthesized (denoted as L1 in Fig. 9).
Using the same 3D FEM procedure, another set of p-y curves is also obtained for the case where
the lateral load is applied right at ground line. This set of p-y curves is denoted as L2 in Fig. 9.

Fig. 9 shows that at greater depth, p-y curves show some dependence on loading conditions.
The p-y curves are softer when lateral load was applied above the ground line. Commonly used
p-y curves do not distinguish loading conditions (e.g, Reese and Impe 2001). Near ground
curves. Fig. 9 also shows that the initial slope of the p-y curves is about the same at different
depths, unlike the traditional curves (e.g, Reese and Impe 2001). The p-y curve yields at smaller
pile displacement near ground surface. In the two cases, L1 and L2, the p-y curves above half
pile diameter depth yielded completely. The p-y curves at greater depth did not fully yield at the

FIG. 9. p-y curves at different depth derived from 3D FEM analysis.

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CONCLUTIONS
This pilot study used a 3D FEM to analyze laterally loaded piles. A framework is presented
using 3D FEM nonlinear analysis to obtain p-y curves for sand. The following conclusions can
be drawn:

1. At greater depth, p-y curves show some dependence on loading conditions. Near
ground surface, p-y curves were similar.
2. In this preliminary study, 3D FEM nonlinear analysis shows that the initial slope of the
p-y curves is about the same at different depths. Additional research is underway to
further clarify this mechanism.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
The authors would like to thank Professor Ronald Y. S. Pak (University of Colorado, Boulder),
for his rigorous analytical solutions and valuable comments on the 3D FEM linear analysis. This
research was supported by the Pacific Earthquake Engineering Research Center (PEER), under
the Earthquake Engineering Research Centers Program of the National Science Foundation
(award number EEC-9701568), and by the National Science Foundation (awards number
CMS-0084616, and 0200510).
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