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Geotechnical Testing Journal, Vol. 35, No.

3
Paper ID GTJ104203
Available online at: www.astm.org

TECHNICAL NOTE
Charles W. W. Ng,1 C. H. Lai,2 and C. F. Chiu3

A Modified Triaxial Apparatus for Measuring the


Stress Path-Dependent Water Retention Curve

ABSTRACT: This article reports a modied triaxial apparatus for measuring the stress path-dependent water retention curve (SDWRC) of
unsaturated soils under isotropic and deviatoric stress conditions. In this modied triaxial apparatus, an open-ended, bottle-shaped inner cell is
installed together with a differential pressure transducer to measure the total volume change of a specimen accurately for the correct determination
of the degree of saturation of an SDWRC. Details of the calibration and test procedures are described and discussed. Some test results from
compacted samples of a completely decomposed tuff, i.e., silt of low plasticity, are also presented in order to demonstrate the key features of the
modied apparatus.

KEYWORDS: unsaturated soil, water retention curve, laboratory test

Introduction
The water storage capacity of a soil at different matric suctions
can be represented by a water retention curve (WRC). The water
storage capacity is generally quantied in terms of the gravimetric
water content, the volumetric water content, or the degree of saturation. As experimental studies on unsaturated soil are timeconsuming and costly, many studies in the past have developed
empirical relationships between the WRC and the mechanical/hydraulic properties of unsaturated soil (Fredlund et al. 1994,1996;
Vanapalli et al. 1996).
A change in matric suction can cause the volume of unsaturated soil to change. Normally, soil (except collapsible soil) swells
as the matric suction decreases (a process known as wetting) and
shrinks as the matric suction increases (known as drying). However, the volume is often assumed to be constant when evaluating
the conventional WRC. Furthermore, the WRC is usually obtained
from tests under zero stress, even though soil can be, and often is,
subject to various stress paths in the eld.
Recently, the focus has been shifted onto the effects of stress
on the WRC (Ng and Pang 1999,2000a,2000b; Vanapalli et al.
Manuscript received July 12, 2011; ; accepted for publication October 19,
2011; published online March 2012.
1
Cheung Kong Scholar Chair Professor, Key Laboratory of
Geomechanics and Embankment Engineering of Ministry of Education, Hohai
Univ., 1 Xikang Rd., Nanjing 210098, China; and Chair Professor, Dept. of
Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Hong Kong Univ. of Science and
Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong Kong, e-mail:
cecwwng@ust.hk
2
Former Student, Dept. of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Hong
Kong Univ. of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Kowloon, Hong
Kong.
3
Associate Professor, Key Laboratory of Geomechanics and Embankment
Engineering of Ministry of Education, Hohai Univ., 1 Xikang Rd., Nanjing
210098, China (Corresponding author), e-mail: acfchiu@yahoo.com.cn

1999; Romero and Vaunat 2000). Ng and Pang (2000a) used a


modied volumetric pressure plate extractor to study the effects of
stress and volume changes on the WRC during a wetting and drying cycle. However, the modied volumetric pressure plate extractor measures the WRC only under the K0 condition. The effects of
a broader range of stress paths, such as isotropic and deviatoric
stress paths, on the WRC have rarely been reported in the literature. This article presents a modied double cell triaxial apparatus
for measuring the stress path-dependent water retention curve
(SDWRC) under isotropic and deviatoric stress conditions. The
design of the inner cell and the calibration of a novel device for
monitoring the volume change of a specimen are also discussed.
Finally, the preliminary test results of a compacted soil are used to
demonstrate the key features of the equipment.

Modified Triaxial Apparatus


Control of Matric Suction and Stress
The schematic layout of the modied triaxial apparatus is illustrated in Fig. 1. The axis translation technique (Hilf 1956) is used
to control the matric suction (the difference between pore-air pressure ua and pore-water pressure uw) in the soil specimen. The
pore-air pressure is applied at the top of the specimen through a
coarse porous lter. The pore-water pressure is applied and measured at the base of the specimen through a 5-bar high air-entry ceramic disk. In the study, the base pedestal is left open; thus the
pore-water pressure equals the atmospheric pressure. An openended and bottle-shaped inner cell is used inside a conventional
triaxial cell. The same cell pressure is applied to both the inner
and outer cells. An axial force can be exerted on the test specimen
through a loading ram. An internal load cell is attached to the

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NG ET AL. ON TRIAXIAL APPARATUS FOR STRESS PATH-DEPENDENT WATER RETENTION CURVE

FIG. 1Schematic layout of the modied triaxial apparatus.

491

due to water absorption by an acrylic inner cell wall should be


taken into account during a test (Sivakumar 1993). In this study,
the inner cell was soaked in deaired water between each test in
order to minimize the effect of water absorption. Detailed calibration procedures and accuracy evaluation of this type of inner cell
have been presented by Ng et al. (2002).
The ow of water into or out of the specimen is monitored by
a burette together with an air trap and a ballast tube (see Fig. 1).
This system functions as a buffer, storing the water owing out of
the specimen during the drying process and allowing the backow
of water from the ballast tube into the specimen during the wetting
process. An air trap connected by the rubber connecting tubes to
the base of the triaxial cell is used to collect any air bubbles that
diffuse through the high air entry disk. There is a level mark on
the stem of the air trap to measure the volume of water. There is
another level mark on the ballast tube, and a ruler attached
beneath it, with which the equilibrium condition of the specimen
for a given matric suction can be monitored. In this study, the
equilibrium condition is assumed to be attained when the water
ow rate is less than 0.1 g/day.

Flushing System
loading ram inside the cell in order to measure the axial force
applied on the specimen directly. A dial gauge is mounted on the
loading ram to measure the axial displacement of the soil
specimen.

Measurement of Total and Water Volume Change


The volume change of the specimen is monitored by the volume
change of the water in the inner cell. The change in volume of the
inner cell can be minimized by the open-ended design, as both the
inner and the outer cells are subjected to the same cell pressure.
During a test, changes in the water level in the inner cell take
place only within the neck of the bottle. The inner diameter of the
bottle neck is 20 mm, which is larger than the diameter of the
loading ram (10 mm). Thus, the net cross-sectional area excluding
the diameter of the loading ram at the bottle neck is used in calculations. As a result, the measurement of the change in water level
inside the inner cell due to a change in the volume of the specimen
is quite sensitive because of the small cross-sectional area of the
neck of the bottle. A special device for measuring volume
changes, previously developed by Ng et al. (2002), was used to
monitor the volume change of the soil specimen in this study. The
basic aim of the measuring device is to monitor the changes in the
differential pressure between the water level inside the inner cell
and that in the reference tube with a differential pressure transducer (DPT). The model of the DPT is Druck LPM9381. Bronze
connecting tubes are used to minimize the potential pressureinduced expansion/compression of the drainage lines. Deaired
water is used inside the inner cell and reference tube. In order to
minimize the evaporation of water and slow down the rate of air
diffusion into the water, a thin layer of parafn is added on the
surface of both the inner cell and the reference tube, as suggested
by Sivakumar (1993). The material used to manufacture the inner
cell is acrylic. It is understood that an apparent volume change

The pore air cannot ow through the high air-entry ceramic disk if
the matric suction of the soil specimen is lower than the air-entry
value (AEV) of the ceramic disk. However, the pore air can still
dissolve into the water and diffuse through the ceramic disk during a test. This can affect the measurement of the water volume
change. Therefore, the apparatus is equipped with a ushing system to remove the diffused air. The schematic layout of the base
pedestal is shown in Fig. 2. The water compartment beneath the
high air-entry ceramic disk is a spiral groove 2 mm wide and
1 mm deep. The spiral channel is more efcient than the conventional rectangular channel in ushing the accumulated air bubbles
resulting from the air diffusion. The diffused air bubbles in the
water compartment are removed by running a roller over the
rubber connecting tube and are then collected in the air trap (see
Fig. 1). The air collected in the air trap is removed by opening the
stopcock and readjusting the water level to the level mark. During
a test, the diffused air bubbles are removed at regular 12-hour
intervals. In this study, the averaged air diffusion rate was not
considered when evaluating the total measured water ow rate.
This is because diffused air was ushed regularly at 12-hour intervals, and thus the inuence of diffused air may be considered
insignicant.

Calibration for Apparent Volume Change


The double cell system is calibrated for compliance errors, including the movement of the loading ram, the deformation of the inner
cell and drainage lines due to the variation in cell pressure, and
creep. The calibration for the effects of cell pressure and creep on
the deformation of the inner cell and drainage lines was conducted
on a rigid dummy specimen. The cell pressure was rst increased
quickly by a prescribed amount and then maintained for about a
week or longer. During the entire process, the output of the DPT
was monitored regularly.

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FIG. 2Layout of the base pedestal: (a) plan view; (b) section view.

Figure 3(a) depicts a typical calibration result for a cell pressure of 80 kPa. The gure shows that the total apparent volume
change can be divided into two components: (i) immediate volume change due to the elastic deformation of the double cell system, and (ii) volume change with time due to the creep of the
double cell system. The immediate volume change might result
from the compression of any possible trapped air, the compressibility of the water and the membrane surrounding the specimen,
and the slight expansion of the connecting tubes and valves. The
gure shows that the apparent volume change due to creep is
about 0.13 cm3 under a cell pressure of 80 kPa, which is equivalent to 0.18 % volumetric strain for a soil specimen 70 mm in
diameter and 19 mm in height. Figure 3(b) shows the relationship
between the immediate volume change and the cell pressure,
which is nonlinear and fairly reversible. A relatively greater
volume change is observed for a cell pressure below 100 kPa.
The relationship is approximated by a second-order polynomial
equation.
The following two developments have been noted for the
newly modied equipment presented in this paper in comparison
with the apparatus presented by Ng et al. (2002). Firstly, the original inner cell could accommodate a specimen of only 38 mm in
diameter and 76 mm in height. In order to reduce the time for suction equalization and test duration, the equipment has been modied to accommodate specimens that are 70 mm in diameter and

FIG. 3Calibration of apparent volume change: (a) relationship between


apparent volume change and time under a cell pressure of 80 kPa; (b) relationship between immediate volume change and cell pressure.

19 mm in height. Secondly, the net cross-sectional area at the bottle neck of this new equipment has been reduced to 236 mm2 (that
of the original one was 314 mm2). As a result, the estimated accuracy of the newly modied equipment is improved, i.e., comparing 23.6 mm3, equivalent to 0.03 % of volumetric strain in this
modied equipment versus 0.04 % in the previous apparatus.

Test Study
Basic Soil Properties
The tested soil used in this laboratory study is a completely
decomposed tuff (CDT) taken from an excavation site in Fanling,
Hong Kong. Block samples were excavated at a depth of around
9.25 m below ground level. The color of the soil is a yellowish
brown. The basic physical properties of the soil were determined
in accordance with the procedures given in BS1377-2 (British
Standards Institution 1990) and are presented in Ng et al. (2004).
It should be noted that all index properties presented here were
obtained from soil samples with particles smaller than 2 mm,
except for the Atterberg limits, which were obtained from the soil
samples with particles smaller than 425 lm. The specic gravity
of the CDT is found to be 2.73. The fractions of sand, silt, and

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NG ET AL. ON TRIAXIAL APPARATUS FOR STRESS PATH-DEPENDENT WATER RETENTION CURVE

clay are 24 %, 71 %, and 5 %, respectively. The plastic and liquid


limits are 29 % and 43 %, respectively. The shrinkage limit is
4.3 %. It should be noted that the shrinkage limit was determined
from the SDWRC test under zero net stress. According to the
Unied Soil Classication System, the CDT can be described as
silt of low plasticity (ML). The maximum dry density and optimum water content determined from the standard Proctor test are
1760 kg/m3 and 16.3 %, respectively.

Specimen Preparation
The soil samples were rst oven-dried at 45 C for 48 h. After the
soil was removed from the oven, soil particles larger than 2 mm
were separated out via dry sieving and discarded. Then, the dry
samples were thoroughly mixed with water at a water content of
16.3 %. Homogeneity of the samples was achieved by breaking
down large soil lumps using a pestle and sieving through a 2 mm
aperture sieve. This process was repeated until only a small
amount of the soil was retained on the sieve. In order to avoid the
loss of moisture, the process of sieving and grinding was done as
quickly as possible. About 30 min were generally needed in order
to prepare 500 g of dry soil, and the water content lost during the
process was found to be approximately 1 %. Afterward, the soil
samples were transferred to a plastic bag, which was then sealed
and kept in a temperature- and moisture-controlled room for one
week for moisture equalization. Then, the soil was compacted to a
dry density of 1510 kg/m3, which is equivalent to 86 % of the
maximum dry density determined by the standard Proctor method.
The corresponding initial void ratio is 0.795. The specimen was
prepared using the moist-tamping method (or dynamic compaction). The required amount of soil was placed in an oedometer
ring 19 mm high and 70 mm in diameter. A sliding hammer
mounted on a supporting frame was dropped through a roll bearing to compact the soil. The compaction was carried out in two
layers, with scarication between each layer, to ensure that the
compacted specimen was uniform. Thereafter, the compacted soil
specimen and the oedometer ring were clamped between two porous stones and submerged in the deaired water inside a desiccator. A small vacuum was applied to the desiccator for 48 h to
saturate the specimen. Before each specimen was assembled on
the testing apparatus, its mass was measured before and after the
saturation process, so that the initial degree of saturation of each
specimen could be evaluated.

Test Procedures
A total of three SDWRC tests were conducted under (i) zero net
stress, (ii) 40 kPa isotropic stress, and (iii) 80 kPa isotropic stress.
The SDWRC test consists of three stages: (1) suction equalization,
(2) loading, and (3) a cycle of drying and wetting. An initial
matric suction of 0.1 kPa was applied to the specimen. This was
achieved by placing outlet tubing located at an elevation 10 mm
below the middle of the soil specimen. The water ow rate was
monitored at intervals of 2 h for the rst 12 h, followed by intervals of 24 h. The suction equalization was terminated when the
water ow rate was smaller than 0.1 cm3/day, which is equivalent
to a rate of change of 0.09 %/day in water content. After reaching

493

an initial suction of 0.1 kPa, specimens I-40 and I-80 were isotropically compressed to a mean net stress of 40 kPa and 80 kPa,
respectively. The volume changes of the specimens were monitored during the loading stage. After isotropic compression, both
specimens were normally compressed, and the corresponding
void ratios (or before drying) are 0.736 and 0.717 for specimens I40 and I-80, respectively. Subsequently, the SDWRC was measured by increasing the matric suction in steps. For a given suction,
equilibrium was reached when the rate of change in the water content was smaller than 0.09 %/day. Typically, 2 to 7 days were
required in order to achieve the equilibrium condition for a given
suction for both drying and wetting stages. The drying test was
conducted until a maximum suction of 500 kPa was reached, and
this was followed by the wetting test by reducing the matric suction in steps until a value of 0.1 kPa was reached. Throughout the
drying and wetting tests, the volume change and water volume
change of the specimens were continuously monitored.

Test Results
Figures 4(a) and 4(b) show the SDWRC of specimens I-40 and
I-80 presented in terms of the gravimetric water content and the
degree of saturation, respectively. The WRC of the specimen subjected to zero net stress (I-0) is also shown in the gure for comparison. It should be noted that the volume change of the
specimen is not taken into account when the SDWRC is represented by the gravimetric water content. The AEV of each drying
curve (the suction beyond which the specimen commences to
desaturate) is estimated using the method suggested by Fredlund
and Xing (1994). The AEV of the three WRCs ranges from 62
kPa to 70 kPa. Signicant hysteresis between the drying and wetting curves is also observed for the three specimens. Furthermore,
the degree of saturation on the wetting curve at zero suction is not
equal to 1 due to the presence of entrapped air. It is found that for
isotropically and normally compressed specimens, the AEV, the
entrapped air content, and the hysteresis are inuenced by the
mean net stress. The AEV increases with increasing mean net
stress, but the entrapped air content and the hysteresis loop
decrease with increasing mean net stress. The test results are consistent with those of an Indian Head Till (Vanapalli et al. 1999)
and a compacted silt (Ng and Pang 2000b). As the WRC depends
on the porosity of the soil, the differences observed in the WRC at
different stress states may be attributed to the volume changes
caused by the applied stress. The effects of applied stress on the
void ratio with changes to the soil fabric and structure are further
discussed in the subsequent paragraph.
Figure 5 depicts the drying and wetting induced volume
changes for the two isotropically compressed specimens (I-40 and
I-80) and the control specimen (I-0). As expected, the specimens
possess different void ratios (e) after isotropic compression before
the drying and wetting tests, which range from 0.717 to 0.795. It
can be seen from the shrinkage curves (i.e., along the drying
paths) that a yield point exists, beyond which a substantial
increase in the volumetric deformation with respect to the change
in suction is observed. After yielding, the gradient of the postyield shrinkage curve (ks) depends on the stress level. It is found

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FIG. 4SDWRC in terms of (a) gravimetric water content and (b) degree of
saturation.

that ks decreases with increasing mean net stress. As the suction


increases further beyond the AEV, desaturation occurs and ks
decreases with increasing suction (or a decreasing degree of saturation) and should approach zero when the shrinkage limit is
reached, i.e., the gravitational water content beyond which no volumetric change is observed. The gure shows that the shrinkage

FIG. 5Shrinkage and swelling curves.

limit occurs at a value of suction between 140 and 220 kPa. It is


found that the suction corresponding to the shrinkage limit
increases with increasing mean net stress, but the limiting void ratio decreases with increasing mean net stress. During the wetting
process, no wetting-induced collapse compression is observed for
the three specimens, but swelling is observed. The gradient of the
swelling curve (i.e., the wetting path) is close to that of the preyield shrinkage curve (i.e., the drying path). A prominent irreversible compression is observed at the end of a cycle of the drying
and wetting process. It seems that the amount of irreversible compression is inuenced by the stress state of the soil.
Based on the experimental data reported by Romero (1999),
Vanapalli et al. (1999), and Sugii et al. (2002), Nuth and Laloui
(2008) proposed the concept of an intrinsic shape of the WRC for
non-deformable soil and demonstrated that the shape is similar for
each initial void ratio within the range of study. They further suggested that the AEV depends on the initial void ratio, and that the
shifting of the WRC from one intrinsic curve to another is governed by the volume changes during drying and wetting. The test
results reported in this study are consistent with those presented
by Nuth and Laloui (2008); e.g., the AEV increases, but the size
of a hysteresis loop decreases, with an increasing stress level for
normally compressed specimens, because the soil is deformable
under an applied stress. In other words, an applied stress can
reduce the initial void ratio and cause the redistribution of pore
sizes, and it might change the soil fabric/structure before drying,
resulting in the differences observed in the SDWRC. Under an
applied stress, it can also be seen that the specimen exhibits a substantial amount of volumetric compression before reaching the
AEV (see Fig. 5). Thus, this additional amount of volumetric
strain and the corresponding changes in the pore size distribution
should be considered when evaluating the shape of the SDWRC.

Summary and Conclusions


A modied triaxial apparatus for measuring the stress pathdependent water retention curve under isotropic and deviatoric
stress paths is presented. By installing an open-ended, bottleshaped inner cell together with a differential pressure transducer,
the total volume change of a specimen can be measured accurately
for the correct determination of the degree of saturation of an
SDWRC. This open-ended double cell system is adopted in order
to minimize possible compliance errors, and the precision of the
volume change measurement is improved via the use of a bottleshaped inner cell. Any change of the total volume of a specimen
is monitored by a high precision differential pressure transducer.
The test results for compacted samples of a completely decomposed tuff showed that for isotropically and normally compressed
specimens, the SDWRC and shrinkage curve are inuenced by
the stress level. For the SDWRC, the AEV increases, but the
entrapped air content and the size of a hysteresis loop decrease,
with increasing mean net stress. Regarding the shrinkage curve,
the gradient of its post-yield part (ks) depends on the stress level.
It is found that ks decreases with increasing mean net stress. The
specimen exhibits a substantial amount of volumetric compression
before reaching the AEV during a drying test. Furthermore, it is

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NG ET AL. ON TRIAXIAL APPARATUS FOR STRESS PATH-DEPENDENT WATER RETENTION CURVE

apparent that the suction corresponding to the shrinkage limit


increases, but the limiting void ratio and the amount of irreversible
volumetric compression decrease, with increasing mean net stress.

Acknowledgments
This study was sponsored by the National Natural Science Foundation of China through Grant No. 50878076 and supported by
HKUST9/CRF/09 from the Research Grants Council of HKSAR.

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