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Introduction to Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering
Soil mechanics can be defined as a study about the engineering or mechanical behaviour
of natural materials such as soils, and the presence of water in soil. Soil is the material
which supports the foundation of all structures. In engineering practice, a knowledge of
the physical properties of soil and its behaviour under load is very important. The word
mechanics refers to the analytical methods. The term Soil Mechanics has been
introduced to account for the application of the laws of mechanics and hydraulics to
engineering problems dealing with soil. Likewise, rock mechanics refer to a similar study
but for rocks. Geotechnical engineering on the other hand refers to a branch of civil
engineering that deals with the properties, behavior and use of earth materials in
engineering works. The earth materials referred to here include both soils and rocks. The
word engineering in this case means the process of design and the subsequent
construction involving these materials.
However, it must also noted out here that the word geotechncial engineering does
not actualy exist in the English Dictionary. Geotechnic is derived a Swedish word
Geotekniska meaning we know it today. During the period of 1914-1922, a Swedish
Commission investigated the failures of some important railways. They developed many
important concepts, methods of analysis and apparatuses to solve many of the related
problems. The meaning of the term Geotechnical is in recognition of their
accomplishment to combine the knowledge of geology with that of civil engineering.
Geology is a study about rocks, minerals, soils, ground water, how these materials
are formed, their structures and behaviour. Engineering geology is a branch of geology
that uses the principles of geology for engineering works.
Foundation engineering on the other hand is a special sub branch of geotechnical
engineering. As it name implies, foundation engineering is about the analysis methods,
design and construction of foundation for structure such as shallow and deep foundation,
and their relevant analyses such as bearing capacity of footing and settlements.
A relatively new branch of geotechnical engineering is what is termed as Geoenvironmental Engineering. In here special consideration is made on the environmental
effects like climate including earthquake, rainfall, ground water, gravitational
movements, waste disposal, chemical etc. on the properties of both soil and rock.
As has been explained above, the practice of geotechnical engineering requires the
integrated knowledge from numerous fields like geology, material sciences and testing,
mechanics and hydraulics, environmental sciences and engineering, and their application
for the design such as for foundation, retaining and earth structures. As such, geotechnical
engineering deals with the multidiscipline coordination of geology, mechanics, material
properties, fluid flow and environmental effect, concerning soils and rocks. Figure 1.1
shows the relation between geotechnical engineering, geology and civil engineering.

Fig. 1.1Relation between civil engineering, geotechnical engineering and geology (after
Coduto, 1999)
In general almost all civil engineering projects are constructed on earth, and some
may even be constructed from the earth materials itself such as embankments and dams.
All these projects will therefore requires some input of geotechnical engineering. Among
issues that need to be addressed by an engineer in this field are:

Is the soil or rock beneath the construction site is capable to safely support the
structure that is going to be built?
If foundation is required to support the structure, the question would be type of
foundation and its method of design.
Suitable methods of soil improvement to improve the properties of in situ soil if
their engineering properties are too poor, like soft clays and peat.
If retaining structures are required, what would be the best type and how to design
Are the proposed slopes or existing natural slope stable? If not, how to stabilize
Existing ground water conditions on project site, how it may change in the future
and its impact on the said project.
Impact of the project from natural calamities such as earthquake.
Are the ground contaminated from chemical and biological waste? If so are they
hazardous to health, and how can we overcome this problem?

Geotechnical engineering therefore has immense importance and vast application to the
design and construction of various civil engineering structures. Some of the prominent
subject is:

Foundation of structures: All civil engineering structures eventually transmit their

load to the earth, mostly to soils. The type, dimension and details of foundation
will depend on the strength and deformation characteristics of supporting soil.
Underground and earth retaining structures: The loadings on structure like
underground pipelines, tunnels, earth retaining structures, sheet piles, etc. is
estimated by the properties and behavior of soil in their natural environment.
Embankment, excavation and dam: Construction of earth embankment and
excavation requires knowledge of slope stability involving the soil behavior. Deep
excavations often need bracing for their stability; dams are designed against
stability and seepage consideration. All these require the knowledge of soil
Pavement: The design of either a rigid or flexible pavement depends mostly on
behavior of sub grade soil in relation to settlement, swelling, repetitive loading,
and frost action.
Soil subsidence, Soil heave, Frost action, Soil erosion, Shrinkage and Swelling:
These are the special problems affecting the design of foundations of any civil
engineering structures which can only be looked to with the relevant knowledge
of soil mechanics.

Though geotechnical engineering is a universal set of the related subjects, yet it happens
to subscribe a more inclination towards soil mechanics. On a similar note, this book will
focus mostly on the soil mechanics aspects of geotechnical engineering. Soil mechanics
is also sometimes termed as soil engineering.
Brief History of Geotechnical Engineering
Actually man has been building structures such as dams, roads, and drainage system for
thousand of years. But these earlier constructions were not based on rationale engineering
considerations on the properties of soils and rocks. They were mostly based on past
experience, passed down from generation to generation. However some of these earlier
structures were certainly huge and amazing, a certain indication of the empirical
knowledge and skill in the field of geotechnical engineering that existed in our
predecessors. The notable examples are the hanging gardens of Babylon, the pyramids of
Egypt, large public building, harbors, aqueducts, bridges, roads and sanitary works of the
Romans, and the Great Wall of China.
The Ancient Egyptians built many types of buildings. They used to construct their
important structures such as temples and pyramids on rock as a solid foundation.
However, some structures reflect their knowledge of some of the mechanical properties
of soil. In 2000 B.C., they used timber and stone caissons for construction in soft ground.
The cutting edge of the caisson was made of circular limestone block shaped as ring. The
outer surface of the caisson was made smooth so that the side friction during sinking was

But problem began to arise when the structures that were going built were more complex
than the past experience. This was particularly during the Renaissance and Industrial
Revolution period. A notable historical example of construction problem associated with
the foundation soil is the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy constructed in 1173 AD (Figure

Fig. 1.2 Leaning tower of Pisa

Since then the behavioral aspects of soils and rocks began to catch the attention of
the scientist especially in the 17th and 18th century. The 19th century saw a rapid industrial
development. An example is found in Taj Mahal in India, where the terrace and the
buildings adjacent to the river, as well as the minarets, were constructed on a compacted
layer of masonry supported on masonry cylindrical wells sunk at close intervals. With it
came extensive construction projects, hence problems with soils and rocks associated
with them. Some of the recorded earlier events of important contribution to the field of
geotechnical engineering are perhaps the following.

Wedge theory of earth pressure published by a Frenchman, Charles Augustin

Coulomb in 1776, and his subsequent works on shear strength parameters of soil
and bearing capacity of foundation soil.
Extension of Coulombs theory by a German, Cullman in 1886 and an Austrian,
Rebhann in 1871.
Stoke an Englishman on law of falling velocity of particles in a fluid media,
Darcy a Frenchman on law of fluid flow through soil mass in 1856.

Rankine a Scottish on theory of earth pressure in 1857.

Bossinesq a Frenchman on theory of stress distribution, 1885.
Mohr a German works on graphical analysis of stress in 1887, and failure
hypothesis of real materials in 1900.

The prominence of these earlier works is so appreciable that many of these concepts are
still in use in the field of geotechnical engineering especially in soil mechanics and
foundation engineering. In this twentieth century much attention and interest have been
focused on various aspects of soil mechanics. In this respect, the scientists works have
much more scientific and practical considerations. The most notable references are:

Consistencies of soil and their limits by Atterberg 1911.

Bells bearing capacity theory, 1915.
Prandtls theory of bearing capacity, 1920.
Terzaghi theory of one dimensional consolidation, 1925; bearing capacity theory,
Casagrande works on Atterberg limits, clay structure, consolidation of soil,
seepage, soil classification etc. during 1932-1975.
Compaction of soil by Proctor, 1933.
Stability analysis of slope by Wolmar Fellenius, 1936; bearing capacity theory,
Taylors theory on stability of earth slope, 1937; characteristics of theoretical
consolidation curve, bearing capacity factors, seepage and flow nets, 1948.
Newmarks chart for computation of stresses on elastic foundations, 1942.
Bearing capacity theory by Meyerhof, 1951.
Skemptons bearing capacity theory, 1951; pore pressure parameters, 1954.
Dynamics of bases and foundation by Barkan, 1962.
Stress path concept by Lambe and Whitman, 1969.
Vibrations of soil and foundations by Richart, 1970.

These are only few examples. In fact, by the turn of the twentieth century much of the
knowledge in the field of geotechncial engineering was getting disseminated through
various publications and the extent of works done during this period is tremendous. An
excellent account of these earlier documented works is given by Skempton (1979).
The contribution by various authors to develop the field of geotechncial engineering
is really noteworthy. Even though, if to mention of the significant single contribution, it is
perhaps Austrian born American professor Karl Terzaghi (1883-1963) who exerted a
profound influence to establish soil mechanics or geotechnical engineering as one of the
subjects of civil engineering. In 1923, Terzaghi published his theory of one-dimensional
consolidation, and in 1925, he published his book titled Erdbaumechanik, the German
equivalent of Soil Mechanics. His genuine interest, research, publication and practical
experience elevates him to a level of most fruitful contributor in this field, as such, he is
generally regarded as the father of modern soil mechanics.

Introduction to Geological Engineering

As describe before, geology is a study about rocks, minerals, soils, ground water, how
these materials are formed, their structures and behaviour. Engineering geology on the
other hand is a branch of geolgy that uses the principles of geology for engineering
works. The main task for an engineering geologist is to determine, describe, and test
samples of rocks on construction site, evaluate issue such as instability by landslides and
earthquate potential. And as been mentioned earlier, the contribution of both geotechnical
engineers and geologist is vital for the success of any engineering projects involving both
soils and rocks.

Soils and Rocks

Both geologist and engineer will classify earth materials into two general categories, that
is soils and rocks. However their definition differs. To a geologist, rock is any natural
aggregate or mineral mass that forms part of the earth crust (American Geological
Institute, 1976). Rock consists of mineral grains having strong internal cohesive and
molecular forces holding them together resulting in a voluminous mass. This definition
focuses on the mode of origin and material structure. While to an engineer, rock is a hard
material, durable, and cannot be excavated without using an explosive. The definition of
which is based on strength and durability of the material. Discrepancy will arise in both
definitions when comes to intermediate material like siltstone. This rock fall under the
category of rock according to its mode of origin, but soft enough to be excavated by
using ordinary excavation equipment. While some cemented soils like caliches are as
hard as rock but could not be excavated by ordinary excavation equipment. The above
discrepancy can be partially overcome by using definitions of hard rock and soft rock.
Soft rocks are rocks that can be excavated by using ordinary excavation equipment.
Soil is usually considered as loose agglomerate of minerals and sometimes with
organic materials. It is the product of the natural weathering of rocks. Soils have been
continuously formed and then transported by rivers, wind and ice. They form through the
physical, chemical and organic weathering of rocks and the mechanical disintegration of
rock fragments during transportation in streams, rivers, ice and wind. The term soil is
derived from the Latin word solium, meaning the upper layer of earth crust that may be
dug or ploughed. Though it shows a close resemblance in meaning with the definition of
soil of agronomists, different professionals define soil differently.
Many professional, like geologists, agronomists and civil engineers, uses soils.
Engineers use soil and rock for many purposes; as construction materials, as supports to
the foundation of structures and also as structural materials. According to civil
engineering definition, soil is considered to include all naturally occurring loose or soft
deposit overlying the solid bedrock. It is formed of the disintegration and decomposition
of rocks, the process that is known as weathering. It may also be formed by
decomposition of organic materials.
To a geologist, all the materials mantling the earth crust are unconsolidated
sediments overlying solid bedrocks called regolith. Regolith is roughly equivalent to soil

as used by the engineers. It may include saprolite, which is a decomposed rock that is
chemically altered and coherent and retaining traces of original structure of rock.
Agronomists, agriculturist and soil scientists are much more concerned with the growth
of plants on the earth surface. According to them, soil is a thin layer of loose surface
materials of the earth crust, which is a portion of regolith or engineering soil, where
plants grow. The geotechnical engineers know the material, which is called soil by the
agronomists, as topsoil. The topsoil usually contains large quantity of organic materials
and is not suitable either as a construction material or as a foundation. The topsoil or
surface soil is usually removed before the construction of a structure. The nomenclatures
used by the different professionals for soils are shown in Fig. 1.3.

Fig. 1.3 Nomenclature used for soil by the various professionals

Soil is generally a product due to disintegration and or decomposition of rocks, a process
that is known as weathering. Based on their mode of origin, (engineering) soils can be
divided into two categories that are residual soil and transported soil. A third category is
the organic and peat soil. We will discuss about this in further detail in the later section of
this book.
Minerals and Rocks
Minerals are the basic constituents of rocks and thus control their behavior. Strong and
durable minerals will form rocks that are equally strong and durable, whereas weak
minerals will form weak rocks. There are more than two thousand types of minerals
found in the earth. These minerals can be identified based on their physical and chemical
properties through ordinary standard tests or microscopic examination. The following are
some of the commonly found minerals (also see Table 1.1):
Feldspar this mineral is found in many types of rocks. Orthoclase Feldsphar contain
potasium (Kal Si3 08), white to pink in color. Whereas Plagioclase Feldsphar contain
sodium (Na Al Si3 08) or calsium (Ca Al2 08) or both, and white to grey or black in color.
This mineral has medium hardness.

Quartz this mineral is also found in many types of rocks. It is silicate (SiO 2),
transparent or milky white in color. Quartz is quite hard compared with many other
minerals, and dificult to be weathered.
Feromagnesian Minerals are class of minerals that contain iron and magnesium.
Examples of these minerals are pyroxene, amphibole, hornblende dan olivine. These
minreals are usually dark in color and with moderate hardness.
Iron Oxide these are ferrous (Fe2 O3) minerals. They include limonite and magnetite.
These minerals gives soils and rocks the rusty iron (reddish) color. They also acts as
cementing agents.
Calcite are minerals that contain calsium carbonate (CaCo3). This mineral is usually
white, pinkish or grey in color, and can be transported by ground water through fissures
in rocks as solutions. The solution in soil can act as cementing agent. Calcite is far softer
compared with quartz or feldsphar.
Dolomite like calcite, but it contains magnesium.
Mica are thin transparent plates. Muscovite are plates of reddish in color, whereas
biotite has darker color. These plates have low angle of friction and can therefore results
in shear failure in certian type of rocks such as schist.
Gypsum are soft minerals that are commonly found in sedimentary rocks. It has no to
whitish in colour. Gypsum has commercial value and can be mine if occur in thick
deposit. Gypsum is soluble in water and therefore can be dissolve or eroded by ground
Table 1.1 Common Rock Forming Minerals (after Beavis, 1985)


Structural Class




NaAlSi3O8 CaAlSi2O8
KAl2(AlSi3O10) (OH)2


As mentioned above, when rocks are weathered, they will break down to form soils.
However most of the minerals will remain as they are in original condition. For example
sand grains are formed from quartz. However certain minerals will experience chemical
and physical changes and thereby experience transformation process to new mechanical
properties. For example feldsphar will turn into clay minerals. Soils may contain other
materials such as organic materials, man made waste, and water.
Geological Cycle

The geological theories are actually based on the geological cycle, as shown in Figure
1.4. As shown in the figure, rock begins with magma from the earth core. These rocks are
later broken down due to the weathering process to form soils. The soils are in turn may
be returned to rocks, thus forming a cycle.

Fig. 1.4 Schematic Diagram of Geological Cycle (after Waltham, 1994)

Based on this cycle, rocks can be divided into three broad categories that are:
(a) Igneous - that is rocks which have been cooled from a molten state. Example are
of these rocks are granite, diorite, basalt, rhyollite and gabbros.

(b) Sedimentary - which are rocks that have been deposited from a fluid medium,
usually water, and typically as products of weathering of other rocks. Common
examples are shale, sandstone, and limestone.
(c) Metamorphic - rocks which are formed from preexisting rock by the action of
heat and pressure. Quartzite, schist, slate are example of metamorphic rocks.
The earth crust is approximately 95% igneous rock with only the remaining 5%
sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. However, sedimentary rocks are present on 80% of
the earths surface area.
Igneous Rocks
The geological cycle begins with magma, that is molten rocks from the earth core.
Magma then flow upwards and experience a cooling process, thereby forming igneus
rocks. There are two main types of igneus rocks, that is the intrusive (also known as
plutonic rocks), and extrusive type (also known as volcanic rocks) which are formed on
the earth surface. Types of igneus rocks normally found are:
Granite of intrusive type. Granite is comprise mainly of orthoclase feldsphar, quartz,
with some biotite and amphibole.
Basalt of extrusive type, with dark colors and very hard.
Diorite as with granite but with plagioclase feldsphar with some or no quartz.
Rhyollite as granite but of extrusive type.
Gabbro as with basalt but of intrusive type. Gabbro is usually darker compared with
granite and diorite.
Sedimentary Rocks
Soils can be turned into rocks through the process of hardening known as inundation or
lithification, thereby forming the second category of rocks that is the sedimentary rocks.
There are two major types of sedimentary rocks that are clastic and carbonates.
Clastic rocks clastic rocks are formed when soil hardened due to pressure from the
overlying layers or the cementing process by deposition of soluble minerals such as
calcium carbonates or iron oxides. Due to this mode of formation, clastic rocks are often
layered or stratified. The interface between the strata is called the bedding planes.
Examples of clastic rocks that are normally found are shale, sandstone, conglomerate,
breccias, mudstone or siltstone.
Carbonates A different sedimentary rock will be formed when accumulated organic
materials become hardened. These rocks, which are formed from the organic materials,
are called carbonates. Types of carbonate rocks that are normally found are limestone,
lime and dolomite. The main composition of this rock is calcite (Ca CO 3). Most of the
limestone is formed by accumulation of marine organisms at the base of the sea. This
sediment is later up heave by tectonic forces, part of which later become a land surface.


Lime is like limestone but more porous. Dolomite is also like limestone but its mineral is
dolomite and not calcite.
Carbonate rocks, especially limestone can be dissolved by water particularly due to
prolonged exposure. These rocks can therefore be eroded by ground water to form a
special topography known as karsts topography as shown in Figure 1.5, whereby the rock
surface is seen to compose of valleys with sharp pinnacles, as well as underground caves.
Such topography can cause lots of problem to geotechnical engineering, for example,
during piling. The pile tips may sit on the pinnacle, and not on solid bedrock. The
presence of underground caves may also cause ground subsidence due to collapse of the
caves when surface loaded by construction such as residential housing, roads and
railways. This phenomenon is called the sinkhole. Drilling and geophysical methods are
normally used to determine the existence of the karstic profile and existence of the
underground caves. If the caves are found, normally they would be filled up with cement
grout if the construction is still to be carried out on the site. Alternatively the construction
site can be move to other safer place.
Metamorphic Rocks
Both igneous and sedimentary rocks will be subjected to extreme heat and pressure deep
in the earth core. This condition will results in a dramatic change to the minerals in the
rocks, and thus forming the third type of rocks, that is metamorphic rock. These rocks
usually have better engineering properties that the original rocks, in term of strength and
hardness. In certain metamorphic rock that originates from sedimentary rock, the
orientation of its minerals is similar to the parent rocks. This is known as foliated. These
rocks therefore have weak planes in term of shear strength. Other types do not have any
specific orientation that is non-foliated. Examples of metamorphic rocks usually found

Foliated rocks - slate, schist, gneiss

Non foliated - quartzite, marble

Earth is an active planet in a constant state of change. Thus the geological cycle is
continually taking place on the surface on the earth, which modifies the earths surface,
destroy old rocks, and create new rocks. These therefore add to the complexity of ground
surface and results in the formation of soils. According to geologists there is an ongoing
but rather conspicuous and very slow processes whereby rocks are decomposed into soils,
while some of the soils goes through various stages of conversion back in to rock. The
transformation whereby rocks are converted in to soil, and vice versa, generally occurs
over million of years through complex chemical and physical processes.
The cycle of events consists of weathering, transportation, deposition, consolidation,
lithification, metamorphism, and upheaval and again followed by weathering. Referring
to the geological cycle (Fig. 1.4), the term erosion includes all processes of denudation
which involve the wearing away of the land surface by mechanical action. Agents like
water, wind, ice, glacier and gravity do the transportation of eroded materials. The
transportation agents are by themselves capable of limited wearing action on rocks and


the process is reinforced when these agents contain particles of the transported materials.
The transported materials are deposits in different conditions and undergone lithification
and or consolidation.
Lithification is a process by which weak loose sediment is turned into a stronger
sedimentary rock through the processes of cementation, recrystallization and compaction
due to burial pressure and slightly increased temperature beneath a kilometer or more of
overlying sediment. The process of cementation means the filling of the intergranular
pore spaces by deposition of mineral cement brought in by circulating water. Rock
strength is largely dependent on the type of cement, which may be silica (strongest), iron
oxides, calcite or clay (weakest).
Recrystallization is the small-scale solution and redeposition of material, so that
some grains become smaller and some become larger. It is similar to cementation, but
may produce stronger texture.
Compaction is the restructuring and change of grain packing, with decrease in
volume, due to burial or overburden pressure, with consequent reduction of porosity as
water and or air is squeezed out. Increase in strength is due to more grain-to-grain
Consolidation generally refers to the increase in strength especially in clays (finer
particles) due to their restructuring, improved packing, loss of water and reduced porosity
caused by compaction under structural loading. It also includes some cementation and
new mineral growth.
Metamorphism is due to induced high temperature (up to about 600 o C) and or high
pressures (around 500 MPa at 20 km depth). It usually takes place in the solid state of
rocks. It is a well established fact in geology that normally temperature increases
downwards at an average rate of 30o C per km. Magma is generated by local heating and
melting of rocks of the earths crust, mostly at depths between 10 and around 100 km.
Most composition of rock melts at temperatures of 800 - 1200o C.
As mentioned above, the type of soil developed depends on the rock type, its mineral
constituents and the climatic regime of the area. Rocks containing quartz or orthoclase
minerals with high silica content mostly decompose into coarse-grained soils like sand or
gravel with little fines (clay). On the contrary, rocks containing iron, magnesium, calcium
or sodium with little silica decompose to yield fine textured silty or clayey soils.
Of all the processes involved to result in the formation of soil, weathering is perhaps
the most prominent event.


Fig. 1.5 Karst features of limestore

Weathering Processes

Rocks exposed to atmosphere will undergo the process of weathering that is physical,
chemical or biological weathering. Weathering is therefore the process of disintegration
and decay of rocks resulting from exposure to and the influence of atmospheric agents.
Most rocks exposed at the surface are the products of processes, which involve elevated
pressure and or elevated temperature. By contrast, in the near surface environment there
prevails low temperature and little or no confining pressure. In addition water and oxygen
are abundant. Consequently, the near surface rocks will undergo changes and slowly
break down to unconsolidated material or soil.
Weathering is usually a slow process. However, the process of weathering depends
on wide range of near surface environmental conditions found in different parts of the
globe and this depth may vary widely in some of the cases. A complete weathering to
depths of 300 m is recorded in Australia and at down to 1500 m in the former USSR
(Beavis, 1985). Depending on the fragmentation phenomenon of rocks weathering may
be classified physical (mechanical), chemical and biological.
The types and intensity of weathering processes, particularly physical and chemical,
depends on the climatic condition of the area. Temperature and precipitation are the
controlling factors. The dominant type of weathering that can be expected in a particular
climatic region is shown in Fig. 1.6.


Mean annual rainfall (cm)

Fig 1.6 Climatic influences on types of weathering processes (after Kehew, 1988)
Physical Weathering
Physical weathering (also known as mechanical weathering) includes processes or agents
that breakdown rock into smaller particles by exerting forces that exceeds the strength of
the rocks. Physical weathering processes are generally the forerunners of the other two
types of weathering that is the main contributors of surface area for chemical and
biological attack. The constituents generally remain unaltered and the soil formed has the
properties of the parent rock. Usually coarse-grained soils are formed due to physical
weathering. The principal agents of physical weathering are unloading effect or stress
release, periodical temperature changes, wedging action of ice, splitting action of plant
roots, abrasion of rock due to wind, water and glacier.
Unloading or Stress Release: Release of confining stresses in a rock mass exposed at the
surface allows the rock elastic expansion. Cracks and joints may form to depths of
thousands of meter below the ground surface because of the reduction of effective
containing pressure caused due to uplift, erosion of surface materials or changes in fluid
(water) pressure. The peeling off of surface rock layers due to this process is known as
exfoliation. Exfoliation may also occur due to tunneling and rock excavation.
Temperature Changes: A large variation in temperature may cause a rock to disintegrate
either because of fatigue due to cyclic stresses of tension and compression, or because of


thermal expansion of minerals within the rock, or both. The coefficient of thermal
expansion is not the same for all minerals constituting a rock. So, when rocks are heated
or cooled due to variation in day night temperature or variation of seasonal temperature,
the mineral grains are subjected to differential stresses. In some instances this will induce
and propagate fractures in rocks whereas in others, individual minerals grains are
disaggregated from the mass. The later process of disintegration is prevalent in coarse
grained, quartz rich rocks.
Forest fires can also cause mechanical breakdown of rocks because of the great
expansion that occurs at elevated temperatures. Until the sixteenth century, fire and water
quenching were used as a mining procedure to break rocks and expose valuable minerals.
Wedging Action of Ice: The water entering at the rocks fractures cools down to form frost
wedge in freezing temperature of atmosphere in cold periods of the year. This action of
frost or ice wedge can disintegrate the rock because of the volume increase of water in its
icy form. When water freezes to form ice, there is a volume increase of approximately 9
percent. The stress generated by each freezing cycle is about 225 kPa, which represent 5
to 50 percent of the compressive strength of most rocks. During the hot season, the ice
melts releasing the stresses, the process of which is known as thawing. As such, this
stress is exerted repeatedly with each freeze-thaw cycle until the rocks broken apart.
Splitting Action of Plant Roots: Plants can grow at the loosen material of the rock joints.
With the growth of roots, a wedging action come into force to contribute to splitting the
of rocks. Even in solid exposed rock like granite, quartzite and sandstone, the roots of
trees can penetrate to obtain support and substance thus giving rise to a wedge and
splitting action.
Abrasion Action of Water and Wind: Windborne small size particles exert impact and
abrasion on rocks in desert areas. This disintegrates the rock. Raindrops on weak rocks do
similar action during intense rainfall storms. The flowing water stream having high
velocity exerts impact and abrasive stresses on the rocks resulting in some smaller
particles. The movement of glacier also causes abrasion and scouring of the underlying
Chemical Weathering
Most rocks originally formed at depths used to be in very different conditions of stresses
and temperatures as exist at the earths surface. When rocks are exposed to the relatively
much lower temperatures and pressures at the surface, they become chemically unstable
and tend to react with the available constituents of the atmosphere to form more stable
new minerals. The exposure of rock surface to atmospheric reactants like water, oxygen,
carbon dioxide etc. foster chemical reaction to decompose the rock into soil. This is
known as chemical weathering and it is basically a surface phenomenon. When chemical
weathering takes place, the parent rock minerals are transformed into new minerals. The
soils formed may not have the properties of the parent rock.
Practically all chemical weathering processes are accomplished in presence of water.
Because of its molecular structures, as shown in Fig. 1.7, water is a dipolar liquid. Since
the hydrogen atoms are not symmetrically oriented around the oxygen and the molecule


has both the positive and negative edges like bar magnet. As such, it has the ability to
combine with both ionic and organic substances as well as chemical compounds. Not
only that, the atom of hydrogen (a constituent of water molecule) has equal excess and
deficiency in electrons in its outer shell. As such, it can be acted either as cation (+) or
anion (-). Thus water can also dissociates as hydrogen (H+) and (OH-) ions. These are the
significant properties of water to play a major role in chemical weathering.

Fig. 1.7 (a) Molecular Structure of Water; (b) Structure Shown as a Dipole
Two other important controls on chemical weathering reactions are temperature and pH.
By definition, pH is the negative logarithm of hydrogen ion concentration in a solution. It
is a measure of acidity of the weathering reactions. The principal chemical weathering
processes are solution, carbonation, hydrolysis, oxidation, hydration and leaching action.
Solution: Water as it reaches the ground in the form of precipitation is slightly acidic (pH
5.9) because of its reaction with carbon dioxide and other constituents of atmosphere
to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). The concentration of H2CO3 greatly increases as the
rainwater or snowmelt percolates down ward through the soil. Decaying organic matter
combines with water to provide more carbon dioxide. The carbonic acid thus formed
lowers ph value as the solution involves ionization according to the reaction.
H2O +CO2

H2CO3 H+ + HCO3-

The resulting increase in ph causes a more intense attack on minerals. When a mineral
completely dissolves during weathering, the reaction is known as solution. Thus new
minerals are formed and the rock becomes disintegrated.
Carbonation: It is the process of combination of carbonate or bicarbonate ions with earth
materials. For example, the bicarbonate ions formed during the process of solution as
mentioned before, reacts with calcite (limestone) and disintegrates to amorphous calcium
CaCO3 + H2CO3

Ca2+ + 2HCO3- Ca(HCO3)2

(Calcium bicarbonate)


Hydrolysis: This is the process of reaction between the mineral and the H + and OH- ions
of water. The small size of the H+ ions enables it to enter the lattice of minerals and
replace the existing cations to form new minerals. A common example is the
transformation of orthoclase feldspar to smaller particles of kaolinite clay.
2KalSi3O8 + 2H+ + H2O

A12Si2O5(OH)4 + 4SiO2 + 2K+


Oxidation: Oxidation occurs in rock minerals when oxygen ions combine with mineral
elements to disintegrate the rock. A familiar example is the combination of oxygen with
iron giving rise to rust. Thus pyroxene is oxidized to form a secondary mineral limonite,
as in following chemical equation, thus disintegrating rocks. The presence of limonite in
soil is indicated by reddish or brownish hue.
4FeSiO3 + O2 + H2O

4FeO(OH) + 4SiO2

Hydration: Hydration is the surface adsorption of water, which enters lattice structure of
minerals thus causing a volume expansion and subsequently the disintegration of rocks.
The formation of gypsum from anhydrite is a common example of hydration.
CaSO4 + 2H2O


This chemical reaction produces an increase in volume of approximately six percent and
accordingly causes the enclosing rocks to be wedged further apart.
Leaching Action: Leaching action is the removal of soluble materials particularly salts
from bedrocks or weathered rocks by running (flowing) water. Thus potassium, sodium,
magnesium, calcium, chlorite, carbonate and some silica ions are removed causing
disintegration to rocks.
Biological Weathering
Biological weathering or biotic weathering has given a separate entity to describe
mechanical and chemical changes of the rocks associated with the direct activities of
plants and animals. Plant retains moisture and thus keeps damp the rock surface on which
they grow. This helps the solution effect to the rocks. The chemical decay of rocks is also
aided by the formation of vegetable humus derived from plants and helped by the action
of bacteria and fungi. Humic or organic acids are thereby added to percolating rainwater
and increase its acidity or solvent power. Bacteria species may live in aerobic and
anaerobic pore spaces of weathered rock and mobilize chemicals like C, N, Fe, S and O
thus assisting the process of weathering. Furthermore, some of the insects secrete acidic
enzymes, which also help the chemical disintegration of rocks. The physical breakdown
of rocks is also done by the wedging action of plant roots.


Formation of Soils
Compared with rocks, soils are softer in term of strength and more compressible. Because
of this soils give more problems to engineering compared with rocks. Besides that most
construction projects are either built on soil, or out of the soil itself. Therefore engineers
will normally face more problems from soil engineering compared with rocks.
Based on their mode of formation, soil can be divided into two categories that are
residual soil and transported soil. The third category is the organic and peat soil. This
book will also briefly describe other special soils such as collapsible and expansive soils.
Soil formed due to the process of in situ weathering of rocks and not transported
elsewhere is called the residual soils. While those that are transported and deposited
elsewhere is termed as transported soils. Transport agents here refer to water, wind,
glacier as well as gravitational forces.
The extent of soils is a three dimensional system; two aerial dimensions and a depth
dimension. Whether they are transported or residual deposits, soil shows aerial limitations
and changes with depth. Horizontal as well as vertical transition into another soil type
may be gradual or abrupt depending on modes of formation and transportation. When
vertical changes are caused in transported soil, the resulting layers are called strata; while
in case of residual soil, they are usually termed as horizons. The set of horizon, from soil
surface to the original or physically unaltered parent rock, is known as the profile.

Residual Soils
As described above, soils which are formed due to the process of in situ weathering of
rocks and not transported elsewhere is called the residual soils. Such soil may retains
some similar characteristics to the parent rocks.
Figure 1.8 shows a typical profile showing the soil horizon. The horizon containing
slightly weathered parent material or substrate is commonly known as the C-horizon. The
top layer ranges from only few centimeters to a meter or more and spans from the surface
deposits of decaying plant litter to a depth at which the organic matter is completely
humified. This is A-horizon or topsoil. Between A and C-horizons lies the B-horizon,
which is usually a locus of accumulation of material washed down from the A-horizon in
suspension or colloidal solution by percolating precipitation water. The D-horizon
represents intact rock. In most of the places, materials in a particular horizon are derived
from the underlying horizons. If distinct differentiation has taken place within horizons
A, B and C, they can be further divided into sub-horizons.


Fig. 1.8 A typical soil profile showing soil horizons (after Cerniaca, 1995)
For case of geotechncial engineering, a general profile of residual soil as shown in Figure
1.9 is normally referred to. The transition from fresh (un-weathered) rock, to partially
weathered to fully weathered rock (soil) is denoted by grades or zones of I to VI.

Fig. 1.9 Classification of residual soil based on weathered degree


In tropical countries like Malaysia, where the chemical and biological weathering is
quite intense, residual soils formed may reach thickness of several hundred meters. While
in cold and arid climate, little or no residual soils will be formed.
Types of soils formed depend on their parent rocks. For example sandy residual soils
are formed from granite rocks. Igneous and metamorphic rocks resulted in soils from silt
type to gravel. While sedimentary rocks like shale will form residual soil with higher clay
Saphrolite is residual soil that has not been completely weathered and still contains
lumps of rocks and structures of the original parent rocks (grade III in Fig. 1.9)
Laterites are residual soils formed in tropical countries like Malaysia. These soils are
cemented with iron oxide, thus giving them the reddish color. The soils usually have high
dry strength. In term of engineering properties, residual soils usually range from poor to
good, and their engineering properties usually improve with depth. A large percentage of
soils found in Malaysia are residual soils. Figure 1.10 shows a map on the distribution of
soils in Malaysia.

Fig. 1.10 Simplified soil map of Malaysia

Transported Soils
Transported soils are soils that have been transported and deposited elsewhere by agents
such as water, wind, glacier as well as gravitational forces. These are the glacier, alluvial,
lacustrine and marine, aeolian and colluvial soils.
Glacial Soils


A large part of the earth was once covered by ice or glacier. Soils are formed when this
glacier melt due to increase in earth temperature. The glacial soils are generally divided
into three categories, namely till, glaciofluvial and glaciolacustrine (see Fig.1..).

Fig. 1.. Glacial till on a terrace cut showing the heterogeneous and unstructured nature
of glacial till, (source:

Alluvial Soils
Alluvial soils, which are also known as fluvial soils or alluvium, are soils that are
transported by rivers. These soils are normally found in engineering because many
engineering structures are actually built on them. This is because many major towns and
cities are located in areas close to rivers, river mouths and deltas where these types of
soils are found. A longitudinal section of a river showing the various types of soil
particles is presented in Fig. 1.


Fig. 1.2 Longitudinal section of a river and the type of alluvial sediments

In the upstream of the river, where the flow of water is quite fast, particles of clays
and silts are present in form of suspension. Only sands and gravels will be deposited. But
when the water flow becomes slower, say at the river mouth and where the river meets
the sea, those fine soil particles will in turn be deposited.
Lacustrine and Marine Soils
Lacustrine soils are soils deposited in lakes. Most of these soils are of clay and silt with
poor to medium engineering properties.
Marine soils are also deposited in water, but salt water. Delta is a specific example
of marine soils formed when river meet with the sea. The resultant soils are mostly of
silts and clays, and are usually quite soft. Due to their mode of formation, lacustrine and
marine soils are usually quite uniform (see Fig. 1..).

Fig. 1.
lacustrine deposit showing layering typical for this kind of deposits. (source:

Aeolian Soils
Aeolian soils are soils formed by wind, for example in arid areas in sand dessert. This
mode of formation usually results in soil of poor grade. These soils are usually very loose
with only average engineering propertie (see Fig. 1.).


Fig. 1 Typical aeolian soil deposit (source:

Colluvial Soils
Colluvial soils are soils that are transported downhill by action of gravity as shown in
Figure 1.11. There are two modes of downhill movement that is the rapid movement and
slow movement.
Slow movement is due to creep, and such movement only measured a few
millimeters per year. This process is caused by shear stresses due to gravity and frost
action. Rapid movements are those due to landslide or mudslide.

Fig. 1.10. Colluvium

Special Soils
Organic and peat soils, collapsible as well as expansive soils are soils that we refer to
special soils in this book.


Organic Soils
Organic soils are soils which contain organic matters from accumulation of plant remains.
These soils are normally formed when the rate of accumulation exceeds that of decay; say
in waterlogged areas such in the swamp.
Organic soils are soils with more than 20% organic matters. While peat is organic
soils with more than 75% organic matters. Other component of the soils may include silt
and clays (see Fig.1..)

Fig.1.. Peat deposit, a type of organic soil.

Malaysia is one of the countries in the world that has a substantial land areas
covered with the organic soils. Some 8% of the country land area is covered with these
soils, that is in term of acreage about 2.6 million hectares, with the state of Sarawak
having the largest coverage, that is about 1.66 million hectares or about 13% of the state
land area. In term of thickness, these deposits vary from just a few meters from the
ground surface to tens of meters. Fig 1.12 shows a simplified organic soil map of
Malaysia. Besides Malaysia, peat or organic soils are also found in many other countries
like Canada, Japan, Ireland, Indonesia, Netherlands, and the United States.
Organic soils in particular peat have poor engineering properties with low shear
strength and high compressibility. Besides, further decomposition of the organic matters
can occur if the level of the water table changes, and thereby also change the mechanical
properties of the soils. These soils are also known to have high secondary compressions.
The existence of these soils in water logged areas such as the swamps increases the level


of difficulties to perform construction activities in such areas. In short, these types of

soils bring many problems to engineering.

Fig. 1.12 Simplified organic soil map of Malaysia

Collapsible Soils
Collapsible soils (also known as metasable soils) will remain strong and stable as long as
they remain dry. But if they become wet, they will quickly collapse thus generating
unexpected settlement. The process of collapse is sometimes called hydroconsolidation,
hydro compression or hydro collapse (see Fig. 1.).

Fig 1. Collapsible soil (source:


The brown areas in the following map shows the existence of the collapsible soils in Iran.

FigMap of collapsible soil in Iran (Source:

These soils are usually of sand and silt size particles with honeycomb structures.
The soils can be found in alluvial, colluvial and residual soils.
Figure 1.13 illustrates the concept of soil collapse and potential hydro collapse
strain, w . Table 1.2 gives the classification of soil compressibility.

Fig 1.13. Concept of soil collapse

Table 1.2 Classification of soil collapsibility
Potential Hydrocollapse Strain, w
0 0.01
0.01 0.05
0.05 0.10
0.10 0.20

Severity of Problem
No problem
Moderate Trouble
Severe Trouble


> 0.20

Very Severe Trouble

Expansive Soils
Expansive soils are those that changes in their volume as a result of changes in moisture
content. Expansion or swelling occurs when water infiltrates between and within the clay
particles causing them to separate. It is the minerals of the clays that are responsible for
their expansion. To be expansive, a soil must have significant clay content, falling within
Unified symbols of CL or CH.
Several different clay minerals occur in nature, the differences being defined by
their chemical makeup and structural configuration. Three of the most common clay
minerals are kaolinite, illite and montmorillonite. The greatest problem occurs in soil
with montmorillonite. The reason being that montmorillonite particles are weakly bonded
as such water can easily flow into it. Pure montmorillonite can expand 15 times its
original volume, but it is rarely found in such a pure form. However, a typical soil
containing montmorillonite would probably not expand more than 35% to 50%.
There are two types of montmorillonite clay, calcium montmorillonite and sodium
montmorillonite (also known as bentonite). The latter is much more expansive, but less
common (see Fig. 1.).

Fig. 1,,,,, Expansive soil (source:

Most of the problems with expansive soils occur in arid, semi arid, and
monsoonal areas because the seasonal distribution of precipitation and evaporation
transpiration causes wide fluctuations in the soils moisture content. A useful measure of
precipitation and evaporation transpiration as it affects expansive soil problems is the
Thornwaite Moisture Index, TMI. This index is a function of the difference between the
mean annual precipitation and the amount of water that could be returned to the
atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration. A positive value indicates a net surplus of


soil moisture whereas a negative value indicates a deficit. Using this index, Thornwaite
classified climate as presented in Table 1.3
Table 1.3 Classification of climate
-60 to -40
-40 to -20
-20 to 0
0 to 20
20 to 100

Climate Type
Dry Subhumid
Moist Subhumid
Very Humid

Expansive soils are most prone to cause problems in areas where the TMI is no greater
than +20
A large variety of soils are found in India and the soil map of India is shown in Fig.


Fig.1. Soil Map of India (Source:

The most important soils of plains and slopes in Iran consist of alluvial, colluvial, humic-clay and
various kinds of salt-affected soils (Fig. 2).


Fig. 2 Soil Map of Iran (Source:
Essay Topics
1.1 What is soil? Differentiate between geotechnical engineering, soil mechanics and
engineering geology?
1.2 Name some early notable works of civil engineering that involved geotechnical
1.3 What are three basic rock types? Give three examples of each.
1.4 How rocks are involved in soil formation? Name at least five soil-forming rocks.
1.5 Define rock and mineral? List fives examples of commonly found rocks and minerals.
1.6 Describe briefly the geological cycle for the formation of soil.
1.7 What is weathering? Describe the processes of weathering.
1.8 Which agent is mainly responsible for chemical weathering? Why?
1.9 On what factors do the type of weathering depend? Show in a diagram to illustrate the
effects of these factors on type of weathering.
1.10 What is soil profile? Differentiate between soil strata and soil horizon?
American Geological Institute 1976. Dictionary of Geological Terms. Anchor Books.


Beavis, F.C. 1985. Engineering Geology, Blackwell Scientific Publications, Melbourne.

Cernica, J.N. 1995. Geotechnical Engineering: Soil Mechanics, John Wiley and Sons
Inc., New York.
Coduto, D.P. 1999. Geotechnical Engineering. Principles and Practice. Prentice Hall.
Huat, B.B.K, Ali, F. & Maail, S. 2002. Kejuruteraan Geoteknik. University Putra
Malaysia Press, Serdang, Selangor, Malaysia
Kehew, A.E. 1988. General Geology for Engineers, Prentice Hall Inc., New Jersey.
Skempton, A.W. 1979. Landmarks in Early Soil Mechanics. Seventh European
Conference on Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering, Vol. 5, pp. 1 26.
Waltham, A.C. 1984. Foundations of Engineering Geology, Blackie Academic &
Professionals, London.