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Advances in Unsaturated Soils Caicedo et al.

2013 Taylor & Francis Group, London, ISBN 978-0-415-62095-6

Evaluation of soil matric suction, microstructure and its influence

on collapsible behavior
J. Ramos & Y. Valencia
National University of Colombia, Medelln

ABSTRACT: This paper examines the role of microstructure and matric suction in the collapse behavior of residual soils, were carried out a series of physical classification tests,the microstructure of the
specimens was examined by Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM), and the ASTM Filter Paper Method
was used to determine their matric suction; Results evidenced that the collapse phenomenon is linked to
breaking open the soil microstructure showing grains of quartz bound together by clays (kaolinite) or
oxides and hydroxides of iron or aluminum (hematite, gibbsite) and the sharp reduction on matric suction during wetting of the sample which affects the stability of the slopes, furthermore some trend was
observed for collapsible and non-collapsible soils in water retention curve.


Residual soils occur in most countries of the world

but the greater areas and depths are normally found
in tropical humid areas. In these places, the residual
soil (also known as tropical residual soils) forming
processes are still very active and the weathering
development is much faster than the erosive factor. The origin, formation and occurrence of tropical residual soils have been described in detail by
[Singh and Huat, 2004].
Deep groundwater condition is not unusual in
tropical residual soils especially within steep slopes.
Soils above the groundwater are certainly unsaturated, hence negative pore water pressure also
known as matric suction plays an important role
in controlling the shear strength and consequently
the stability of many steep slopes.
Ignorance or lack of understanding of the
geotechnical behavior of soil in the partially or
unsaturated state has caused a lot of damages
to infrastructures, buildings and other structures. For instances, the collapsibility and volume
change of partially saturated soils in connection
with the drying or wetting causes a lot of damage in foundation, roads and other structures. It
is also observed that many shallow slope failures
involve a slumping (collapse) type of failure. As
such, the development of extended soil mechanics,
which embraces the soil in the unsaturated state or
subjected to soil suction, is essential as detailed by
Azlan et al.

Most residual soil exhibit high suctions for most

of the year. The absence of positive pore water
pressure except immediately after rain makes conventional soil mechanics for saturated soil not so
relevant. In particular, the effective stress theories
of saturated soil are not applicable at the practical


Theorical framework

A general partial differential equation to describe

the one-dimensional consolidation of an unsaturated soil [Fredlund and Hasan, 1978] can be
rewritten for a collapsible soil [Tadepalli and
Fredlund, 1991] as follows,
Cvw uw
1 2u
= w 2w +
t Cv y
y y


uw = pore-water pressure.
Cvw = coefficient of consolidation with respect to
the water phase.
y = vertical Cartesian coordinate.
t = time.
The constitutive relations for unsaturated soils
can be used to predict the volume change of a
collapsible soil during inundation. The equation


can be written as follows [Tadelli and Fredlund,

= m2s d(
d uw )


an undisturbed soil. Visual illustration of microstructure features of an undisturbed is presented

by the scanning electron microscope (SEM) in
Fig. 1.

dVv = change in total volume.
= initial volume of the soil.
d(uw) = change in pore water pressure.
= coefficient of total volume change with
respect to a change in matric suction at
a constant net normal stress.
As we can appreciate the equation, the collapse
phenomenon is primarily related to the reduction
of the matric suction during inundation, matric
suction is one of the two stress-state variables that
control the behavior of an unsaturated soil; there
is a one-to-one relationship between matric suction
and total volume change for a soil exhibiting collapse behavior during inundation.
Factors influencing collapse behavior of unsaturated soils include water content, degree of saturation, relative compaction and particle size [Olsen
and Langfelder, 1965; Krahn and Fredlund, 1972;
Houston et al., 1994; Rao and Revanasiddappa,
2000]. Besides the above mentioned factors, the
microstructure is expected to influence soil collapse and also matric suction of unsaturated soils
as it determines the relative abundance of different types of pores (large, small, etc.), soil collapse
is referred to high porous media, and presence of
clay minerals and iron oxide.
The arrangement and bonding that occur
between micro-structure units determines the relative abundance of macropores and micropores in



Collection and data properties of specimens

Undisturbed soil specimens were collected from

different locations for collapsible and non-collapsible behavior to determine the influence that soil
structure and soil suction on collapsible phenomenon, the laboratory data obtained was processed,
details the in-situ properties of the undisturbed
soil specimens from the locations are displayed

Soil suction measurement

The ASTM Filter Paper Method (ASTM

D5928-94 Standard Test Method for Measurement of Soil Suction) determined the matric suction of the undisturbed and remolded specimens
in the unsaturated state.
The in-contact filter paper technique is used
for measuring matric suction of soils. Direct contact between the filter paper and the soil allows
water in the liquid phase and solutes to exchange
freely. [Fredlund et al., 1995], In the in-contact filter paper technique, water content of an initially
dry filter paper increases due to a flow of water in
liquid form from the soil to the filter paper until
both come into equilibrium. Therefore, a good
contact between the filter paper and the soil has
to be established. After equilibrium is established
between the filter paper and soil, the water content
of the filter paper is measured. Then, by using the
appropriate filter paper calibration curve, the suction of the soil is estimated.

Index properties

Index property tests such as grain size distribution and Atterberg limit tests were performed on

Figure 1. SEM showing micro-structure of undisturbed

red soil sample: (1) inter-granular contact, (2) sand particle, (3) macropore, (4) clay aggregate. (Sudhakar).

Figure 2.


Suction Test Scheme.

Table 1.

Index properties of soil samples.

Index Properties




In-Situ Moisture

Santa Elena




representative soils collected from the test pits.

Two laboratory tests are commonly used to determine the grain size distribution of soils, namely
the sieve analysis and hydrometer test. The sieve
analysis determines the grain size distribution
of particles larger than 75 Am (gravel and sand
termed as coarse-grained soils). Hydrometer
analysis gives insight in the distribution of finer
particles (silts and clays termed as finegrained
soils). Natural soils almost always contain a variety of particle sizes mixed together. The Atterberg limits assess the plasticity of a soil and its
consistency at various moisture contents. The
commonly performed Atterberg limits tests are
the liquid limit test and the plastic limit test.
The liquid limit (LL) of a soil represents the
water content at which a soil transits from liquid to plastic state. The plastic limit (PL) of a
soil represents the water content at which a soil
transits from plastic to semi-solid state. Plasticity
index (PI) defined as the difference between liquid limit and plastic limit represents the range of
water content in which the soil is plastic, i.e., can
be easily molded without cracking or breaking.
Soils with large clay content remain plastic over a
wide range of water content and thus have large
plasticity index. The plasticity index is important
in classifying finegrained soils based on Casagrandes plasticity chart.

One of the newer and most promising qualitative methods for studying and, where possible
quantifying, the arrangements of aggregations/
particles and voids in unsaturated soils is the environmental scanning electron microscopy (SEM).
SEM is a special type of scanning electron microscope that works under controlled environmental
conditions and requires no conductive coating on
the specimen. This makes it possible to examine
wet samples and to preserve their natural characteristics for further testing, A schematic cross
section of the equipment is shown in Fig. 3. As
observed in the figure, the sample chamber is at
a higher pressure (absolute pressure up to 3 kPa)
and separated from the increasing vacuum regions
by the pressure-limiting apertures.
It is expected that vacuum will not diffuse
from one level to another through the small holes
bored in the aperture discs, allowing maintaining
a very good vacuum in the electron gun (105 Pa)
as shown in the figure and a poor vacuum in the
specimen chamber.

Double oedometer collapse test

The quantification of volume change occurs when

soil undergoes collapse is obtained from oedometer test. Once the geotechnical engineer recognizes
the possibility of collapsible soils is present, this
mainly done depending on the density and consistency limits measurements [Lutenegger & Saber
Two identical samples are placed in oedometers; one tested at in-situ natural moisture content, and the other is fully saturated before the
test begins, and then subjected to identical load-

Soil structure analysis

A scanning electron microscope (SEM) is a type of

electron microscope that images a sample by scanning it with a beam of electrons in a raster scan
pattern. The electrons interact with the atoms that
make up the sample producing signals that contain
information about the samples surface structure,
composition, and other properties such as electrical

Figure 3.


Schematic cross section of an SEM (Danilatos

Figure 4.

ing. Two stress versus strain curves are generated.

The difference between the compression curves is
the amount of deformation that would occur at
any stress level at which the soil get saturated. An
idealized view of double oedometer test is shown
in figure 4. Critical stress (cr) represents the
stress level at which the dry sample loose structure breaks down and beyond it the two curves
converge. This behavior could be explained also
by that at high stress level, the limiting void ratio
for the saturated sample is approached for particles packing. It is common for natural soil that
the initial void ratio of the two samples are not
initiating from the same point; in this case adjustment of the two curves according to the procedure proposed by [Jennings, J. E. and Knight,
1975] shall be adopted.


Figure 5.

Results from SEM (Barbosa).

Figure 6.

Results from SEM (Santa Elena).

Figure 7.

Results from SEM (Marinilla).

Typical collapse potential test result.


Soil structure analysis

As [Bishop and Blight 1963] postulate we can

appreciate that collapse is due to wetting induced
reduction in strength of clay bridges existing
between unweathered grains in an open structure
below existing applied stress.
Soil structure and X-Ray diffraction showing grains of quartz bound together by clays
(kaolinite) or oxides and hydroxides of iron or
aluminum (hematite, gibbsite) and the sharp
reduction on matric suction during wetting of the
sample which affects the stability of the slopes,
furthermore some trend was observed for collapsible and non-collapsible soils in water retention
curve, it is now understood that collapse produced
by a system of macropeds deforming to displace

air from a network of inter aggregate pores, and

is strongly related to the relative abundance of the
different pore sizes within a soil matrix [Rao &
Revanasiddappa, 2006].


Figure 8.


Results from soil suction test and data.

Soil collapse analysis

The deflection under each load was appreciated

along with the matric suction values. An important change in matric suction was commonly
observed during the loadings during inundation.
The soil specimens was left in the inundated condition for 24 hours for each change of load. Most
of collapse occurred in the first few minutes after
inundation, that would explain the general objective of this paper that relate the first deflection
of the soil retention curve on with the collapse
behavior, soil specimens that do not have double oedometer test was classified by [Lutenegger and Saber 1988] methodology that relate the
liquid limit and natural dry density with collapse

Soil suction analysis

Collapsible and Non-collapsible soil curves were

plotted,the suction curves of collapsible soils tend
to have more deflection than non-collapsible early,
plus these have a residual behavior, while noncollapsible note is achieved without a marked as
asymptotic trend.


Differences in matric suctions and pore-size distributions of (a) undisturbed residual soil specimens from the same location, (b) undisturbed
residual soil specimens from different locations
and imply that the micro-structure has a major
influence on the matric suction of the residual
soil specimens in the undisturbed and remolded
In traditional soil mechanics theory an increase
in effective stress results in a volume decrease.
Conversely, an effective stress decrease results
in a volume increase. For a soil with a collaps-

ible structure this does not necessarily hold

Micro-structure determines the relative abundance of different types of pores in a soil. SEM
results indicated that the pore-size distribution
of the undisturbed and residual soil specimens
has bi-modal character. Based on the findings
of the earlier researchers as Sudhakar, it is
inferred that the large pore mode contributes
to the inter-aggregate porosity constituted by
the macropores. The small pore mode contributes to the intra-aggregate porosity constituted
by the micropores. The matrix suction of the
undisturbed residual soil specimens is greatly
influenced by the relative abundance of the
interaggregate porosity and intra-aggregate
porosity suggested by the matrix suction results
of the residual soil specimens in the undisturbed
Collapsible and Non-collapsible soils show a
trend in characteristic curve, this indicate that
exist some relationship between soil suction
curve shape and collapse behavior. The microstructure has an important role because the
types and sizes of pore determine the interaggregate soil.

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