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Shear strength of Expansive soils


Soil mechanics involves a combination of engineering mechanics and the properties of soils.
This description is broad and can encompass a wide range of soil types. These soils could
either be saturated with water or have other fluids in the voids (e.g., air). The development of
classical soil mechanics has led to an emphasis on particular types of soils. The common soil
types are saturated sands, silts and clays, and dry sands. These materials have been the
emphasis in soil mechanics textbooks. There are numerous materials encountered in
engineering practice whose behavior is not consistent with the principles and concepts of
classical, saturated soil mechanics. Commonly, it is the presence of more than two phases that
results in a material that is difficult to deal with in engineering practice. Soils that are
unsaturated form the largest category of materials which do not adhere in behavior to classical,
saturated soil mechanics.
The general field of soil mechanics can be subdivided into that portion dealing with saturated
soils and that portion dealing with unsaturated soils.

Categorization of soil mechanics

The differentiation between saturated and unsaturated soils becomes necessary due to basic
differences in their nature and engineering behavior. An unsaturated soil has more than two
phases, and the pore-water pressure is negative relative to the pore-air pressure. Any soil near
the ground surface, present in a relatively dry environment, will be subjected to negative pore-
water pressures and possible desaturation.
The process of excavating, remolding, and recompacting a soil also results in an unsaturated
material. These materials form a large category of soils that have been difficult to consider
within the framework of classical soil mechanics. Natural surficial deposits of soil are at
relatively low water contents over a large a m of the earth. Highly plastic clays subjected to a
changing environment have produced the category of materials known as swelling soils. The
shrinkage of soils may pose an equally severe situation. Loose silty soils often undergo collapse
when subjected to wetting, and possibly a loading environment. The porewater pressure in both
of the above cases is initially negative, and volume changes occur as a result of increases in the
pore-water pressure. Residual soils have been of particular concern in recent years. Once
again, the primary factor contributing to their unusual behavior is their negative pore-water
pressures. Attempts have been made to use saturated soil mechanics design procedures on
these soils with limited success.
Climate plays an important role in whether a soil is saturated or unsaturated. Water is removed
from the soil either by evaporation from the ground surface or by evapotranspiration from a
vegetative cover. These processes produce an upward flux of water out of the soil. On the other
hand, rainfall and other forms of precipitation provide a downward flux into the soil. The
difference between these two flux conditions on a local scale largely dictates the pore-water
pressure conditions in the soil. A net upward flux produces a gradual drying, cracking, and
desiccation of the soil mass, whereas a net downward flux eventually saturates a soil mass. The
depth of the water table is influenced, amongst other things, by the net surface flux. A
hydrostatic line relative to the groundwater table represents an equilibrium condition where
there is no flux at ground surface. During dry periods, the pore-water pressures become more
negative than those represented by the hydrostatic line. The opposite condition occurs during
wet periods.
An unsaturated soil is a mixture of several phases. It is important to establish the number of
phases comprising the soil since it has an influence on how the stress state of the mixture is
defined. First, it is important to define what is meant by a phase. On the basis of the definition of
a phase, it is proposed that an unsaturated soil actually consists of four phases rather than the
commonly referred to three phases. It is postulated that in addition to the solid, air, and water
phases, there is the air-water interface that can be referred to as the contractile skin.
1) State: Nonmaterial variables required for the characterization of a system.
2) Stress state variable: The nonmaterial variables required for the characterization of the stress
3) Deformation state variables: The nonmaterial variables required for the characterization of
deformation conditions or deviations from an initial state.
4) Constitutive relations: Single-valued equations expressing the relationship between state
An element of unsaturated soil with a continuous air phase is idealizedin figure. The mass and
volume of each phase can be schematically represented by a phase diagram below.

In an unsaturated soil, the contractile skin would be subjected to an air pressure, ua, which is
greater than the water pressure, uw. The pressure difference, (ua - uw), is referred to as matric
Stress State Variables
The mechanical behavior of soils is controlled by the same stress variables which control the
equilibrium of the soil structure. Therefore, the stress variables required to describe the
equilibrium of the soil structure can be taken as the stress state variables for the soil. The stress
state variables must be expressed in terms of the measurable stresses, such as the total stress,
σ , the pore-water pressure, uw and the pore-air pressure, ua. An equilibrium stress analysis
can be performed for an unsaturated soil after considering the state of stress at a point in the
soil. Three independent sets of normal stresses (i.e., surface tractions) can be extracted from
the equilibrium equation for the soil structure. These are (σ y - ua,) (ua, - uw,), and (ua,), which
govern the equilibrium of the soil structure and the contractile skin. The components of these
variables are physically measurable quantities. The stress variable, ua, can be eliminated when
the soil particles and the water are assumed to be incompressible. The (σ - ua,) and (ua, - uw,),
are referred to as the stress state variables for an unsaturated soil. More specifically, these are
the surface tractions controlling the equilibrium of the soil structure and the contractile skin.
Similar stress state variables can also be extracted from the soil structure equilibrium equations
for the x- and z-directions. The complete form of the stress state for an unsaturated soil can
therefore be written as two independent stress tensors:

Katti’s concept of bilinear strength envelope

Generally all clays exhibit linear strength envelopes in terms of effective normal stresses.
However Katti in 1978 reported bilinear strength envelope based on both total and effective
normal stresses for expansive soils. Mohr’s strength theory predicts that shear strength of soil is
function of normal stress. This functional relationship could generally be nonlinear, though
coulomb’s version is generally used. Terzaghi clarified that effective stress and not total stress
is not implied in reckoning the normal stress. Linear effective relationship implies the use of two
effective stresses (ies) cohesion (intercept) and angle of internal friction (slope of strength
envelope). Bilinear relation between strength and normal stress are which calls for additional
shear parameters. Additional shear parameters are normal stress corresponding to intersection
of two straight lines (σ´b) and slope of the second straight line (φ´2) which is flatter than the
slope of first straight line (φ´1). Normal stress (σ´b) roughly corresponds to swelling pressure
value of soil and attributes the bilinearity to the structural changes taking place. Fredulnd(1987)
also reported bilinear nature for unsaturated soils.
Expansive clay the swell pressure as well as normal stress (σ´b) decreases with increases of
initial void ratio. For high initial void ratio (called terminal void ratio) then the soil may not exhibit
any swell pressure and hence the bilinearity will not be apparent and strength envelope will be
linear with a slope of φ´2. The bilinearity is attributed to the type of soil structure and the nature
of volumetric changes exhibited during drained shear. For the range of normal stress less than
σ´b the expansive soil behave similar to normally consolidated clays undergoing higher volume
changes. For the normal stress greater than σ´b they behave as over consolidated clay.

Shear Strength Equation

The shear strength of an unsaturated soil can be formulated in terms of independent stress
state variables (Fredlund et ul. 1978). Any two of the three possible stress state variables can
be used for the shear strength equation. The stress state variables, (σ - ua) and (ua - uw,), have
been shown to be the most advantageous combination for practice. Using these stress
variables, the shear strength equation is written as follows:

For an unsaturated soil, two stress state variables are used to describe its shear strength, while
only one stress state variable [i.e., effective normal stress, (σ, - uw,),] is required for a saturated
soil. The shear strength equation for an unsaturated soil exhibits a smooth transition to the
shear strength equation for a saturated soil. As the soil approaches saturation, the porewater
pressure, uw, approaches the pore-air pressure, ua, and the matric suction, (ua - uw), goes to
zero. The matric suction component vanishes, and Eq. (9.3) reverts to the equation for a
saturated soil.
Measurements of Soil Suction
The soil suction as quantified in terms of the relative humidity is commonly called “total suction.
It has two components, namely, matric and osmotic suction. The total, matric, and osmotic
suctions can be defined as follows (Aitchison, 1965a):
“Matric or capillary component of free energy-In suction terms, it is the equivalent suction
derived from the measurement of the partial pressure of the water vapor in equilibrium with the
soil water, relative to the partial pressure of the water vapor in equilibrium with a solution
identical in composition with the soil water.
Osmotic (or solute) component of free energy-In suction terms, it is the equivalent suction
derived from the measurement of the partial pressure of the water vapor in equilibrium with a
solution identical in composition with the soil water, relative to the partial pressure of water
vapor in equilibrium with free pure water.
Total suction or free energy of the soil water-In suction terms, it is the equivalent suction
derived from the measurement of the partial pressure of the water vapor in equilibrium with a
solution identical in composition with the soil water, relative to the partial pmssure of water
vapor in equilibrium with free pure water.”
The above definitions clearly state that the total suction corresponds to the free energy of the
soil water, while the matric and osmotic suctions are the components of the free energy. In an
equation form, this can be written as follows: Ψ = (ua - uw) +π
Where (ua - uw) = matric suction, ua = pore-air pressure, uw = pore-water pressure, π =
osmotic suction.
Figure illustrates the concept of total suction and its component as dated to the free energy of
the soil water. The matric suction component is commonly associated with the capillary
phenomenon arising from the surface tension of water and is the result of the intermolecular
forces acting on molecules in the contractile skin. The capillary phenomenon is usually
illustrated by the rise of a water surface in a capillary tube. In soils, the pores with small radii act
as capillary tubes that cause the soil water to rise above the water table. The capillary water has
a negative pressure with respect to the air pressure, which is generally atmospheric (i.e., ua =
0) in the field. At low degrees of saturation, the pore-water pressures can be highly negative,
with values as low as minus 7000 kPa (Olson and Langfelder, 1965). In this case, the
adsorptive forces between soil particles are believed to play an important role in sustaining the
highly negative pore-water pressures in soils.

Devices for Measuring Soil Suction and Its Components

Axis-Translation Technique

Measurements of negative pore-water pressure can be made using the axis-translation

technique. The measurement is performed on either undisturbed or compacted specimens. This
technique was originally proposed by Hilf (1956) shown in figure.. An unsaturated soil specimen
was placed in a closed pressure chamber. The pore-water pressure measuring probe consisted
of a needle with a saturated high air entry ceramic tip. The probe was connected to a null-type
pressure measuring system through a tube filled with desired water, with a mercury plug in the
middle. As soon as the probe was inserted into the specimen, the water in the tube tended to go
into tension and the Bourdon gauge began registering a negative pressure. The tendency of the
water in the measuring system to go further into tension was countered by increasing the air
pressure in the chamber. Eventually, an equilibrium condition was achieved when the mercury
plug (i.e., the null indicator) remained stationary. The difference between the air pressure in the
chamber and the measured negative water pressure at equilibrium was taken to be the matric
suction of the soil, (ua, - uw) .

When the air pressure is atmospheric (i.e., ua = 0), the matric suction value is numerically equal
to the negative pore-water pressure. The axis-translation technique simply translates the origin
of reference for the pore-water pressure from standard atmospheric conditions to the final air
pressure in the chamber (i.e., axis translation; Hilf, 1956). As a result, the water pressure in the
measuring system does not become highly negative, and the problem of cavitation is prevented.
The soil matric suction remained constant when measured at various ambient air pressures.
The condition of no flow maintained during the measurement of matric suction is the justification
for the axis-translation technique.

Tensiometer is normally used for directly measuring the negative pore-water pressure of soil.
The basic principle is that the pressure of water contained in a high air entry material will come
to equilibrium with the soil water pressure making it possible to measure negative soil water
pressures. Since a true semi-permeable membrane for soluble salts does not exist in
tensiometer, the effect of osmotic component of suction is not measured. Thus, the
measurement only provides the value of matric suction component in the soil. A small ceramic
cup is attached to a tube filled with deaired water which is connected to a pressure measuring
device. Saturate the ceramic cup and tube by filling with water and applying a vacuum to the
tubing. Allow the ceramic tip to dry to reduce the water pressure in the sensor and remove any
air bubbles that appear. Due to the cavitation problem, the use of a ceramic cup with a higher
air entry value will not increase the measurement range of the tensiometer. However,
improvements have been made to the tensiometer technique to enable measurements of matric
suction greater than 100 kPa to be performed. The limitation is that air in the sensor will result
in bad or less negative measurements of the pore water pressure for the following reasons: a)
Water vaporizes as the soil water pressure approaches the vapor pressure of water at the
ambient temperature. b) Air in soil can diffuse through the ceramic material; c) air comes out of
solution as the water pressures decrease.

Suction Probe
The direct measurement of matric suction is preferred in unsaturated soil tests since measured
porewater pressures are more rapidly reflected. Ridley and Burland (1993) developed a suction
probe for measuring matric suction of soil. The principle of making suction measurements using
a suction probe is based on the equilibrium between the pore-water pressure in the soil and the
pore-water pressure in the water compartment. Before equilibrium is attained, water flows from
the water compartment into the soil, or vice versa. The suction probe measures the pore-water
pressure (uw). The matric suction can be computed since the applied air pressure (ua) is
known, and the matric suction is the difference between the pore-air pressure and the pore-
water pressure (ua– uw). Basically, a suction probe consists of a pressure transducer with a
high-air entry ceramic disk mounted at the tip of the transducer. The diaphragm of the pressure
transducer responds to the pressure applied. In the suction probe, the volume of water reservoir
beneath the ceramic disk or ceramic cup is minimized. Water in the water reservoir is pre-
pressurized such that benefit of the high tensile strength of water can be utilized (Marinho and
Chandler, 1995). Recently, Meilani et al. (2002) developed a mini suction probe for measuring
matric suction along the specimen’s height during triaxial test on an unsaturated soil. It is unique
in its ability to make direct measurements over a wide range of soil suctions (i.e. up to 1500
kPa) and has been used extensively in both laboratory and field applications for a variety of
clients and on a range of soil types. Measurements can be made in a borehole at depths
between 0 and 5m or on samples after they have been recovered from the ground.
Similar to the null-type axis-translation technique, the upper limit of matric suction that can
be measured using this technique is governed by the air-entry value of the ceramic disk or
ceramic cup used.

• The main problem is that there may be cavitation and air diffusion through the ceramic
head during the suction measurement.