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Lab 1: Atterberg Limits

Introduction and Background

Atterberg Limits tests (ASTM D4318) are used by geotechnical engineers in the classification of fine
grained and fine grained fractions of soils. Atterberg Limits tests are index tests, which can be thought of
as tests that indicate how a soil will behave under a certain set of conditions.
Strength and behavior of fine grained and fine grained fractions of soil is a function of water content.
Results of the Atterberg Limits tests provide an index of water contents at which a soil transitions from a
brittle solid to a plastic (plastic limit) and from a plastic to a fluid (liquid limit). Atterberg Limit tests are
inexpensive and used extensively in preliminary site investigations to correlate with engineering
properties of site-specific soils, such as compressibility, hydraulic conductivity, shrink-swell, and shear
Laboratory and Report Objective
The purpose of this laboratory exercise is to familiarize students with the ASTM standardized procedures
for Atterberg Limits index testing. For the soil provided, report the natural water content (w
), LL, PL, I
and LI, then classify the soil using the resources provided in the course textbook.
Each group will be provided with the following. Alert the TA if your group is missing any of the listed
Casagrande device
Grooving tool
Porcelain mixing dish
Putty knife/spatula
1/8in diameter brass rod
Plexiglass rolling surface
Paper weighing containers
1 bag of unknown soil

The following procedures summarize those outlined in ASTM D4643 (moisture content by microwave
oven method) and ASTM D4318-Method A (Atterberg Limits). Record measurements and calculations on
the provided data sheet.
Natural Water Content
1. Tare the scale to the provided weighing container.
2. Place approximately 10g of the soil into the container of known tare weight. Weigh to the
nearest 0.01g, record, then place in the microwave to dry. Remove and re-weigh the dried soil.
Liquid Limit
1. Place at least 150g of soil into the porcelain mixing dish. Add a small amount of water and mix
thoroughly to a uniform color and consistency. Verify mass with TA.
2. Using the spatula, form a sample of the mixed soil into the brass cup, keeping the soils surface
parallel to horizontal, as shown in Figure 1.1. Do not fill the cup completely. The sample should
be 10mm deep at its deepest portion in the center. Smooth the surface with as few strokes of
the spatula as possible, and take care to eliminate air bubbles.
3. Cut a groove through the center of the sample with the grooving tool. Start at the back of the
cup and bring the grooving tool forward in an arced sweeping motion, ensuring that the tool
remain perpendicular to the cups bottom.
4. Lift and drop the cup by turning the crank at a rate of 2 revolutions per second. Count the
number of taps, N, required to create a 13mm (1/2in) closure along the length of the central
groove, as shown in Figure 1.2.
5. Remove a slice of soil from the closed portion of the groove and obtain a water content using
the same procedure as above.
6. Remove soil from the brass cup and return to the mixing dish. Thoroughly wash and dry the
brass cup, then repeat steps 1-5 four times. Obtain two N above and two below the 25. Aim
for a difference of 3 or more between individual N values.

Figure 1.2: Central groove and 1/2in closure obtained after N taps (ASTM 2006)
Figure 1.1: Soil fill height in brass cup. Ensure that the soil's surface remains parallel to the horizontal.

Plastic Limit
1. Obtain a small sample of moist soil and roll it between fingers or palm and the rolling surface.
Verify the soil mass with the TA. Apply pressure sufficient to form the mass into a thread of
uniform 1/8in diameter. Use the provided 1/8in diameter brass rod as a reference.
2. Reform the soil into a ball, then roll the soil again until 1/8in diameter is reached.
3. Repeat rolling and reforming until the soil crumbles before reaching 1/8in diameter. Figure 1.3
shows an example of a soil at its plastic limit.
4. Continue the above steps until about 8g of soil can be collected. Verify this mass with the TA.
Place soil in a weighing container, and obtain a water content using the procedure outlined
5. Repeat procedures 1-4 to obtain three water contents.

Report the following in your laboratory write-up:
The natural water content of the soil, w
Graph of w(%) vs. N
Liquid limit of the soil as determined from graph
The plastic limit of the soil as determined from the average of three water contents
The plasticity, liquidity, and flow indices of the soil
Figure 1.3: Example of a soil at its plastic limit. Note the1/8in diameter brass rod used
for scaling (ASTM 2006)

What might account for scatter/lack of scatter in determining LL and PL using the methods
developed by Atterberg?
How do the LL and PL values compare to the soils natural water content? What does this say
about the soils in situ (undisturbed, on site) condition? Does it act more as a semi-solid or a
How reliable are the test methods? How might one improve the reliability and consistency with
techniques in LL and PL testing?
As mentioned in the pre-lab lecture, countries in Europe and Asia use the fall cone test for
determining the liquid and plastic limits of a soil. How reliable does this method seem compared
to Atterbergs methods? Identify any perceived benefits and/or drawbacks in using this
American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), ASTM D4643: Standard Test Method for
Determination of Water (Moisture) content of Soil by the Microwave Oven Method, 2006.
American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), ASTM D4318: Standard Test Methods for Liquid
Limit, Plastic Limit, and Plasticity Index of Soils, 2006.
Das, Braja M. Fundamentals of Geotechnical Engineering, Cengage Learning, 2013.