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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).

2215

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.

7 References

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Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on Unsaturated Soils (UNSAT 98). Beijing, China, 1, 71-98.

Delage, P., Howat, M.D., Cui, Y.J. 1998. The relationship between suction and swelling properties in a heavily compacted

unsaturated clay. Engineering Geology, 50, 31-48.

Donald, I. B. 1957. Effective stress in unsaturated non-cohesive soils with controlled negative pore pressures. Masters thesis,

University of Melbourne.

Escario, V., and Juca, J. 1989. Strength and deformation of partly saturated soils, Proc. 2nd Int. Conf. on Soil Mechanics and

Foundation Engineering, Rio de Janerio, 2, 43-46.

Fredlund, D.G., Morgenstern, N.R., Widger, R.A. 1978. The shear strength of Unsaturated Soils. Canadian Geotechnical

Journal, 15(3), 313-321.

Fredlund, D.G. and Rahardjo, H. 1993. Soil mechanics for unsaturated soils. John Wiley and Sons, INC., New York.

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water characteristic curve, Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 32, 440-448.

Fredlund, D.G. 2000. The 1999 R.M. Hardy lecture: The implementation of unsaturated soil mechanics into geotechnical

engineering. Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 37, 963-986.

Gan, J. K. M., Rahardjo, H., and Fredlund, D. G. 1988. Determination of the shear strength parameters of an unsaturated soil

using the direct shear test, Canadian Geotechnical Journal, 25, 500510.

Garven, E. and Vanapalli S. K. 2006. Evaluation of empirical procedures for predicting the shear strength of unsaturated soils.

Proc. 4

th

Int. Conf. on Unsaturated Soils, Carefree, Arizona, ASCE Geotechnical Special Publication, 147(2), 25702581.

Khalili, N., and Khabbaz, M.H. 1998. Unique relationship for the determination of the shear strength of unsaturated soils,

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Oberg, A., and Sallfours, G. 1997, Determination of shear strength parameters of unsaturated silts and sands based on the

water retention curve, Geotechnical Testing Journal, 20, 40-48.

Oteo-Mazo, C., Saez-Aunon, J., Esteban, F. 1995. Laboratory tests and equipment with suction control. Proceedings of the 1st

International Conference on Unsaturated Soils, Paris, Vol.3, pp.1509-1515.

2220

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