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The 12

th
International Conference of
International Association for Computer Methods and Advances in Geomechanics (IACMAG)
1-6 October, 2008
Goa, India


The Shear Strength Behavior of a Silty Soil in the Residual Zone of
Unsaturation
T. Nishimura
Dept. of Civil Engineering, Ashikaga Institute of Technology, Tochigi, Japan

H. Toyota
Dept. of Civil & Environmental Engineering, Nagaoka University of Technology, Niigata, Japan

Sai K. Vanapalli and Won Taek Oh
Civil Engineering Department, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Keywords: soil-water characteristic curve, hi gh suction, direct shear strength, hysteresis
ABSTRACT: The shear strength behavior of an unsaturated silty soil over the entire suction range was studied in
this paper. In addition, the shear strength behavior was also studied following the drying and wetting path in the
high suction range (i.e. 2,000 to 30,000 kPa). The results of the study show that the maximum shear strength
value occurs approximately at the residual suction value. The shear strength contribution due to suction starts
reducing at suction values greater than the residual suction value and reaches an approximately constant value in
the residual zone of unsaturation (RZU). The shear strength value in the RZU is less than half the shear strength
at residual suction value. Hysteresis effects were negligible with respect to the shear strength following both the
drying and wetting path in the high suction range. An attempt was also made in this paper to predict the variation
of shear strength with respect to suction using six equations that use the Soil-Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC)
and the saturated shear strength parameters from the literature. However, none of the six prediction equations
were able to provide reasonable comparisons with the measured shear strength values. Implications of the
results of present study in geotechnical engineering practice are discussed with respect to the stability behavior of
slopes that are in a state of unsaturated condition.
1 Introduction
Several empirical or semi-empirical models have been proposed to predict the shear strength of unsaturated soils
using the Soil-Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC) and the saturated shear strength parameters (Vanapalli et al.,
1996; Fredlund et al. 1996; Oberg and Sallfours, 1997; Khalili and Khabbaz, 1998; Bao et al., 1998; Xu and Sun,
2001; Xu, 2004; Tekinsoy et al., 2004). These prediction models are useful in reducing not only time consuming
experimental studies but also specialized testing equipment necessary for the determination of the shear strength
of unsaturated soils. Most of the experimental results published in the literature on shear strength of unsaturated
soils are limited to low suction range of 0 to 500 kPa which is the common range of interest in engineering
practice. This suction range typically constitutes the boundary effect and transition zones for many fine-grained
soils (Vanapalli et al. 1996). There are limited studies however undertaken in the residual zone of unsaturation
(RZU), which is also of interest in some practical applications of geotechnical engineering practice. The different
zones; namely, boundary effect and transition zones and the RZU can be estimated from the Soil-Water
Characteristic Curve (SWCC) data (Vanapalli et al. 1998, Vanapalli et al. 1999).

Several studies show that the shear strength of unsaturated soils increase nonlinearly with an increase in the soil
suction (Gan et al., 1988; Escario and Juca, 1989; Vanapalli et al. 1996). However, there is evidence in the
literature which shows the shear strength of unsaturated soils at high suction values corresponding to the residual
zone of unsaturation (RZU) can be lower in comparison to suction values that correspond to boundary effect and
transition zones (i.e., low suction values) (Vanapalli and Fredlund, 2000; Vanapalli et al., 2000). The RZU for
most soils such as silts and clays typically occurs when suction values are greater than 1,500 kPa. On the
contrary, for coarse-grained soils, the RZU may occur in a relatively low suction range (i.e. <10 kPa). The shear
strength data on different coarse-grained soils provided by Donald (1957) supports these observations.

The reduction in shear strength of unsaturated soils in the RZU can have significant influence on the design of
some geotechnical structures, such as the stability of slopes in soils that are in a state of unsaturated condition.
Shallow slip failures in slopes with silty and sandy soils are possible in spite of suction values that correspond to
2213

values of RZU. These failures may be attributed to the decrease in the contribution of suction towards shear
strength in the RZU (Vanapalli et al. 1998, Vanapalli and Fredlund 2000, Vanapalli et al. 2000).

Vanapalli and Fredlund (2000) study on six compacted fine-grained soils shows that the variation of shear
strength with respect to suction following drying path can be reasonably predicted using several semi-empirical
equations. However, there is limited data available in the literature with respect to the shear strength behavior of
unsaturated soils in the high suction range or the RZU following both the drying and wetting paths. The shear
strength behavior following both wetting and drying paths is important to understand the stability of slopes in
unsaturated soils.

In the study presented in this paper, a series of direct shear tests were conducted on statically compacted silty
soil in high suction range (from 2,000 to 300,000 kPa). The high suction values in the specimens were achieved
using vapor pressure technique (VPT) by controlling relative humidity. The shear strength behavior was studied
following both drying and wetting paths to interpret the influence of hysteresis. In addition, the specimens with
initially high suction values were saturated under constant volume conditions (which was achieved by varying the
applied normal stress on the soil specimens) to estimate the loss of shear strength due to saturation. Practical
implications of the results of the present study are discussed with respect to the stability behavior of slopes that
are in a state of unsaturated condition.
2 Background
2.1 Soil-Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC)
The engineering properties such as flow, shear strength and volume change behaviour of collapsible, residual,
compacted and expansive soils that are typically in a state of unsaturated condition can be better interpreted if
the influence of matric suction is taken into account (Fredlund 2000). However, experimental procedures related
to the determination of the engineering properties of unsaturated soils are time consuming and difficult to conduct
in many conventional geotechnical laboratories. For this reason, the focus of unsaturated soils research has been
towards development of empirical, semi-empirical or computational procedures to predict the non-linear
behaviour of unsaturated soils using the SWCC as a tool. The Soil-Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC) is defined
as the relationship between the soil suction and the water content (either gravimetric water content or volumetric
water content or degree of saturation). The SWCC is also referred in the literature as the Soil-Water Retention
Curve (SWRC) or Soil Moisture Curve (SMC). The SWCC is conventionally measured using the pressure plate
technique and vapour pressure technique in low suction and high suction ranges respectively (Fredlund and
Rahardjo 1993). The SWCC consists of three identifiable stages of unsaturation as shown in Fig. 1; that is
boundary effect zone, transition zone and residual zone of unsaturation (RZU). More details related to the SWCC
are described in Vanapalli et al. (1999).
Suction (kPa)
1 10 100 1000 10000 100000 1000000
D
e
g
r
e
e

o
f

s
a
t
u
r
a
t
i
o
n
,

S

(
%
)
0
20
40
60
80
100
Boundary
effect zone
Transition
effect zone
Residual zone
of
unsaturation
Air-entry
value
Residual
suction value


Figure 1. Typical SWCC showing different zones of unsaturation (modified after Vanapalli et al. 1999)
2.2 The relationship between SWCC and shear strength of unsaturated soils
Fredlund et al. (1978) proposed an equation for interpreting the shear strength of unsaturated soils using
Air
Soil
Water film
2214

experimental results as given below:

( ) ( ) tan tan
b
f sat us n a a w
c u u u = + = + +

(1)

where
f
is shear strength of an unsaturated soil,
sat
is shear strength under saturated condition,
us
is the
contribution of suction towards shear strength, c is effective cohesion, is effective internal friction angle,
( )
a n
u is net normal stress, ( )
w a
u u is matric suction and
b
is angle of shearing resistance due to the
contribution of suction. Eq. (1) shows that the shear strength of unsaturated soils consist of two components; the
first part of the equation is the shear strength of the soil under saturated condition and the second part is shear
strength contribution due to suction.

As experimental procedures are time consuming and expensive, several empirical or semi-empirical models have
been proposed in the literature for predicting the shear strength of unsaturated soils using the saturated shear
strength parameters ( ' c and ' ) and the SWCC (see Table 1). The summarized equations are provided with
only the second part of the Eq. (1), which corresponds to the contribution of suction towards shear strength (
us
).
In all these questions, the first part of the equations (i.e.
sat
) is equal to the conventional shear strength of the
saturated soil.
Table 1. Semi-empirical equations to predict shear strength in unsaturated soils.
Authors Equations No. Legend
Vanapalli et al. (1996)
& Fredlund et al
(1996)
( )( )( ) tan
us a w
u u

=
(2)
Vanapalli et al. (1996) ( ) ( ) tan
w r
us a w
s r
u u




=



(3)
Oberg & Salfours
(1997)
( )( )( ) tan
us a w
u u S =
(4)
Bao et al. (1998) ( )
( ) ( )
( ) ( )
( )
log log
tan
log log
a w a w
r
us a w
a w a w
r b
u u u u
u u
u u u u


=




(5)
Khalili & Khabbaz
(1998)
( ) ( )( ) tan
us a w
u u =

,
( )
( )
0.55
a w
a w
b
u u
u u



(6)
Xu and Sun (2001)
( ) ( )
1 1
1
tan
us a w a w
b
u u u u

=
1
2
1
3
s
D
=
(7)
Xu (2004)
( ) ( )
2 2
1
tan
us a w a w
b
u u u u

=
2
2
s
D =
(8)
Tekinsoy et al. (2004) ( ) ( )
( )
tan ln
a w at
us a w at
b
at
u u P
u u P
P

+
= +



(9)
us
- shear strength contribution
due to suction
' - effective angle of internal
friction
( )
a w
u u - suction
( )
a w
b
u u - air entry value
( )
a w
r
u u - residual suction
- normalized water content or
degree of saturation
w
- volumetric water content
s
- saturated volumetric water
content
r
- residual volumetric water
content
1,2
- fractal dimension
s
D - pore distribution factor
at
P - atmospheric pressure
(101.3 kPa)
S - degree of saturation
- fitting parameter
- Bishops fitting parameter

Fig. 2 shows the relationship between the SWCC and the variation of shear strength with respect to suction. Up
to air-entry value, ( )
a w b
u u , the shear strength increases linearly (in the boundary effect zone) and nonlinearly
increase up to a certain suction value which is close to residual zone of unsaturation (see Fig. 1). The shear
strength nonlinearly decreases in the residual zone of unsaturation since degree of saturation, S is small and the
value of [ ]/[ ( )]
us a w
d d u u is negative. More details of the relationship between the SWCC and the shear
strength of unsaturated are available in Vanapalli et al. (1996).

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Air entry value
(ua-uw)b
Residual
suction value
D
e
g
r
e
e

o
f

s
a
t
u
r
a
t
i
o
n
,

S

(
%
)
100
0
S
h
e
a
r

s
t
r
e
n
g
t
h
(a)
'
value under
saturated condition

Suction

Figure 2. Variation of shear strength of an unsaturated soil with respect to suction
3 Testing program
3.1 Soil material
The study presented in this paper was carried out on a relatively non-plastic silty soil. The properties of the soil
are summarized in Table 2. The grain size distribution curve and compaction curve are shown in Figs 3 and 4
respectively.
Table 2. Properties of the soil used in the present study
Sand (%) 1.6
Silt (%) 89.1
Clay (%) 9.2
Liquid Limit, wL (%) 24.7
Plastic Limit, wP (%) 22.8
Plasticity Index, Ip 1.9
Specific gravity, Gs 2.65
Max. dry density, d(max) (kN/m
3
) 15.1
Initial void ratio 0.89
Optimum moisture content, OMC (%) 17
Effective cohesion (c) (kPa) 0
Effective internal friction angle () (degrees) 32.3
3.2 Measurement of the Soil-Water Characteristic Curve (SWCC)
The SWCC in the low suction range was measured using the pressure plate following the procedures described
in Fredlund and Rahardjo (1993). The SWCC in the high soil suction range (> 2,000 kPa) was measured using
vapour pressure technique (VPT). High suction values can be achieved by controlling relative humidity (RH) using
several different salt solutions in desiccators to achieve different suction values (Oteo-Mazo et al., 1995; Delage
et al., 1998; Vanapalli et al. 1999).

The soil samples that were statically compacted at a water content value of 20% which corresponds to the wet of
optimum moisture content conditions were placed in glass desiccators with different salt solutions. The seven salt
solutions used in the present study to achieve high suction values are summarized in Table 3. The glass
desiccators are then placed in a temperature controlled (i.e. 20
o
C) chamber for at least 30 days to allow the
samples to achieve equilibrium conditions with respect to suction values. The soil suction at a temperature of 20
degrees can be calculated using the relationship between relative humidity (RH) and suction (Lord Kelvins
equation).

135022 ln( ) RH = (10)
2216


where is soil suction or total suction (kPa) and RH is relative humidity (%).

Particle size (mm)
0.001 0.01 0.1 1
P
e
r
c
e
n
t

f
i
n
e
r

(
%
)
0
20
40
60
80
100


Figure 3. Grain size distribution curve
Water content (%)
0 10 20 30 40
D
r
y

d
e
n
s
i
t
y

(
k
N
/
m
3
)
13.0
13.5
14.0
14.5
15.0
15.5
16.0
S = 100 % line
Max.
d
= 15.1 kN/m
3
OMC = 17%


Figure 4. Compaction curve

Table3. The relationship between RH and suction values for different salt solutions at 20C.
Salt solutions Chemical symbol Relative humidity (%) Suction (kPa)
Potassium Sulfate K2S04 98.0 2,830
Potassium Nitrate KNO3 95.0 6,940
Ammonium
Dihydrogenphosphate
NH4H2PO4 93.1 9,800
Sodium Chloride NaCl 75.0 39,000
Magnesium Nitrate Mg(NO3)26H2O 54.0 83,400
Magnesium Chloride MgCl26H2O 33.0 148,000
Lithium Chloride LiCl 11.0 296,000

The procedures detailed in Fredlund and Rahardjo (1993) were used in the determination of the SWCC following
the drying path. A different procedure was followed for determining the SWCC following the wetting path in high
suction range. Prior to subjecting the specimens to wetting path for determining the SWCC, the soil specimens
were equilibrated at a relative humidity of 11 % using Lithium Chloride (LiCl) in desiccators, which corresponds to
the suction value of 296,000 kPa. After attaining equilibrium conditions, the specimens were removed from the
desiccator with Lithium Chloride (LiCl) salt solution and placed in desiccators with other salt solutions to achieve
different target suction values as summarized in Table 3. When the suction values of the specimens reached
equilibrium condition after a period of one month, the specimens are removed from the desiccator and gravimetric
water content values were measured.
3.3 Direct shear tests
Two different series of direct shear tests were carried out on compacted specimens with an initial water content of
20% corresponding to wet of optimum conditions. The initial void ratio of the specimens was equal to 0.89.

In the first series of tests, direct shear tests were performed on compacted unsaturated silty soil specimens to
interpret the shear strength behaviour following the drying and wetting paths. The procedures detailed in the
earlier section for the measurement of the SWCC were followed in the preparation of the specimens for the
determination of the shear strength. The direct shear box with the statically compacted specimen was placed in
the glass desiccator to achieve desired suction value in the soil specimen by controlling relative humidity as
explained in section 3.2 (see Fig. 5). The mass of the direct shear box assembly with the soil specimen was
measured at regular intervals until it attains a constant value. Typically, a period of month was required to achieve
equilibrium conditions with respect to the mass of the soil specimen. The direct shear box along with the
equilibrated soil specimen with the targeted value of suction was then transferred to the modified direct shear test
apparatus and sheared at a rate of 0.25 (mm/min).

2217

Direct shear box
Soil specimen
Glass desiccator
Salt solution


Figure 5. Direct shear box along with soil specimen placed in the desiccator to achieve targeted value of high
suction


In the second series of direct shear tests, the saturated shear strength of compacted specimens was determined.
The saturated condition was achieved by placing the statically compacted unsaturated silty soil specimens in the
modified direct shear box and allowing it to imbibe de-aired distilled water under constant volume conditions.
Constant volume conditions were maintained by changing the normal stress on the specimens. This technique
facilitates the specimen to achieve fully saturated conditions without changing the soil structure of the prepared
compacted specimen. The saturated soil specimens were then sheared at a rate of 0.25 (mm/min).
4 Test results
4.1 Soil-Water Characteristic Curve
Fig. 6 shows the SWCC over the entire range of suction (i.e. 0 to 1,000,000 kPa) following the drying path. The
soil desaturated at a relatively faster rate due to its non-cohesive nature. The residual zone of unsaturation (RZU)
starts at an approximate suction value of 100 kPa. This value was determined following the construction
procedures detailed in Vanapalli et al. (1999). Fig. 7 shows the SWCC following both the drying and wetting paths
only in the high suction range. The results suggest that hysteresis effects have little or no influence in the high
suction range.

Suction (kPa)
1e-1 1e+0 1e+1 1e+2 1e+3 1e+4 1e+5 1e+6
G
r
a
v
i
m
e
t
r
i
c

w
a
t
e
r

c
o
n
t
e
n
t

(
%
)
0
5
10
15
20
25
30
Residual stage
of desaturation


Figure 6. SWCC of the compacted soil specimen
Suction (kPa)
1000 10000 100000 1000000
G
r
a
v
i
m
e
t
r
i
c

w
a
t
e
r

c
o
n
t
e
n
t

(
%
)
0.0
0.5
1.0
1.5
2.0
Drying path
Wetting path
Suction range used for
unconfined compression tests


Figure 7. SWCC following the drying and wetting paths
in high suction range.
4.2 Shear strength of the silty soil in unsaturated and unsaturated conditions
Table 4 summarizes shear strength test results for (i) unsaturated specimens in low suction range (i.e. 20 kPa
soil suction 180 kPa) following drying path, (ii) unsaturated specimens in high suction range (i.e. 2,380 soil
suction 296,000 kPa) ) following the drying and wetting paths and (iii) saturated soil specimens under constant
volume conditions. Fig. 8 shows the variation of shear strength with respect to suction for all these tests (i.e.
results summarized in Table 4).

Residual zone
of unsaturateion
2218

Table 4. Data sets obtained from modified direct shear tests under a net normal stress, ( )
a n
u of 3.5 kPa.
Suction measurement method
Suction
(kPa)
Shear strength
(drying path)
(kPa)
Shear strength
(wetting path)
(kPa)
Shear strength*
(saturated condition)
(kPa)
20 26.1 - -
40 56.2 - -
80 77.3 - -
120 87.7 - -
Pressure plate test
180 73.4 - -
RH (%)
98 2,830 32.9 30.0 6.5
95 6,940 39.1 37.8 4.8
93 9,800 38.1 37.8 7.3
75 39,000 37.8 41.9 7.6
54 83,400 37.1 42.3 9.6
33 148,000 41.9 44.1 6.2
Vapor Pressure
Technique
11 296,000 40.9 40.9 5.9
* Shear strength determined under constant volume conditions

The contribution of suction towards shear strength starts decreasing at suction value of about 100 kPa, which
corresponds to the residual suction value (see Fig. 6 and Fig. 8). These results support the shear strength
behaviour in the high suction range described in Section 2.2 using Fig. 2. The shear strength decreases
nonlinearly beyond residual suction value and attains approximately constant value for suction values higher than
1,000 kPa. In other words, the shearing resistance due to soil suction,
b
is close to zero in high suction range.
This result is of interest to practicing engineers in the design of slopes that are in a state of unsaturated condition
with respect to the factor of safety. The factor of safety of slopes would increase as expected with an increase in
the suction due to an increase in shear strength; however, when the suction value is greater than the residual
suction value, the factor of safety will start reducing due to a decrease in value of the shear strength of the soil.
Soil suction (kPa)
1e+0 1e+1 1e+2 1e+3 1e+4 1e+5 1e+6
S
h
e
a
r

s
t
r
e
n
g
t
h

(
k
P
a
)
0
20
40
60
80
100
Drying path
Wetting path
Saturated condition


Figure 8. The variation of shear strength with respect to suction


From Fig. 8, it can also be seen that the shear strength of the soil specimens are approximately the same for both
the drying and wetting paths in high suction range. In other words, the influence of hysteresis on the shear
strength behavior for this soil is negligible. It is also of interest to note that the shear strength of the initially
unsaturated specimens with high suction values measured after attaining saturated conditions under constant
volume conditions were approximately the same. In other words, the saturated shear strength behavior is unique.
The shear strength contribution due to suction was lost after saturation regardless of the high initial suction values.

An attempt was made to predict the variation of shear strength of unsaturated soils using the equations which are
summarized in Table 1. However, none of the equations was successful for predicting the shear strength
behaviour of the silty soil presented in this study. Garven and Vanapalli (2006) also have shown that there was
limited success (approximately around 60%) in the prediction of the shear strength of unsaturated soils using 20
different semi-empirical or empirical equations available in the literature on 13 data sets of shear strength. None
of the 20 different equations were able to predict the variation of shear strength with respect to suction reliably for
all the thirteen data sets studied.

Shear strength of the saturated
soil under constant volume
conditions
Residual
Suction
Value
2219

5 Summary and Conclusions
Experimental studies were performed to study the shear strength behaviour of a silty soil over the entire suction
range. The shear strength behavior in the high suction range (2,000 soil suction 300,000 kPa) following both
the drying and the wetting paths was also given special attention. In addition, an attempt was made to predict the
variation of shear strength of the soil with respect to suction using several equations summarized in Table 1 over
the entire suction range using the SWCC and the saturated shear strength parameters.

The following conclusions were derived from this study:

1) The shear strength of the soil increases nonlinearly in the suction range of 0 to 100 kPa, which forms the
boundary effect and transition zone. The shear strength starts decreasing nonlinearly as the suction value
approaches residual zone of unsaturation (RZU).

2) The influence of hysteresis on shear strength is negligible for the soil tested in the high suction range (2,000
soil suction 300,000 kPa)

3) The shear strength values of all the specimens which were saturated under constant volume were almost the
same irrespective of initial suction values.

4) None of the empirical or semi-empirical equations summarized in Table 1 were able to reliably predict the
variation of the shear strength with respect to suction.

5) It is important to take into account of the reduction of the shear strength of unsaturated soils in the RZU in
the design of geotechnical structures; such as the stability of soil slopes in soil that are in a state of
unsaturated condition, as discussed in this paper.
6 Acknowledgements
This research work was supported by the Grants-in-Aid for Science Research (No. 18206051) from Ministry of
Education, Culture, Slope, Science and Technology, Japan) and Department of Civil Engineering in Ashikaga
Institute of Technology.
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