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Some relationships between shrink-swell

index, liquid limit, plasticity index, activity and
free swell index

Article in Australian Geomechanics Journal · June 2003


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2 authors:

Samudra Jayasekera Abbas Mohajerani

Federation University Australia RMIT University


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Samudra Jayasekera1 and Abbas Mohajerani2

Lecturer, School of Science and Engineering, University of Ballarat
Senior Lecturer, School of Civil and Chemical Engineering, RMIT University

Many laboratory experimental methods have been proposed to measure soil reactivity, some methods leading to direct
measurement whilst other methods propose indirect estimations. Reactivity measurements based on plasticity properties
appear to be commonly used and preferred over many other methods in the identification of soil expansivity, which may
be due to the simplicity and easiness of test procedure. In this study, volume change potentials of several clay soil
samples, containing different percentages of montmorillonite clay, are evaluated using shrink-swell index (I ss), indirect
estimations based on liquid limit (LL), plasticity index (PI), activity (A) and a new approach based on free swell index
(FSI). The analysis of test results presented in this paper shows that FSI could be a satisfactory indicator for the
classification of the volume change potential of clayey soils.

A reactive soil is one that exhibits a reasonable tendency to volume changes (shrinkage and swelling) in response to a
variation in the moisture content within the soil mass. Occasionally, soils that exhibit such volume change
characteristics are also referred to as expansive soils or swelling soils. Most clay soils are reactive to a greater or lesser
degree depending on the type, amount and mineralogical properties of clay particles present within the soil mass, the
intensity of the moisture variation the soil deposit is expected to undergo and possible variations of soil suction
characteristics (e.g. Seed et al, 1962; Nayak & Christensen, 1971; Vijayvergiya & Ghazzaly, 1973; Cameron, 1989;
McKeen, 1992; Abduljauwad & Al-Sulaimani, 1993). Out of the major clay mineral groups of kaolinite, illite and
montmorillonite, the montmorillonite clay mineral exhibits the highest volume change potential. This is due to the
higher ion exchange capacity resulting from the comparatively larger specific surface area. The montmorillonite clay
mineral can therefore create a fully developed double layer effect (electrically held water due to net negative charges on
the clay particle) thus increasing its hydration ability and becoming the most reactive clay type with a greater volume
change potential (Terzaghi & Peck 1967; Lambe & Whitman 1979).
Volume change behaviour of clayey soils can cause many problems in construction activities and be detrimental to
structures founded on such soil deposits (e.g. Mitchell, 1986; Golait & Kishore, 1990; McKeen, 1992; Seddon, 1992).
On the other hand, the same characteristic of these clayey soils can be advantageous when such soils are used to form
hydraulic barriers and low permeable sealing layers (e.g. Rowe, 1997; Fourie, 1998; Alawaji, 1999). As such, accurate
estimation and reliable prediction of the volume change behaviour of expansive soils appears to be an important
requirement in many geotechnical investigations and design programs.
There are several methods for the measurement and estimation of soil reactivity based on their volume change
potentials. Some of these methods involve direct measurement of soil reactivity while some methods lead to indirect
estimations. The method proposed by Seed et al (1962), is based on the soil activity (A) and percent clay in the soil. The
activity is a parameter that depends on the plasticity index (PI) and the percentage finer than 2 µm (generally clay
fraction) of a given soil and therefore activity is considered a good indicator to estimate swelling potential (Skempton,
1953). Van Der Merwe (1964), proposed a method based on PI and percent clay. The method suggested by
Dakshanamanthy & Raman (1973), is based on the plasticity chart. The shrink swell index (Iss), which is a direct
measurement method of soil reactivity is a parameter generally used to classify reactive sites into different classes
(Cameron, 1989; Seddon, 1992). McKeen (1992), proposed a method to predict expansive soil behaviour based on soil
suction and soil water content. A comparatively remote method based on Free Swell Index (FSI) is also reported in a
very limited number of instances, as a good indicator of soil volume change potential (e.g. Sridharan et al, 1985;
Hettiaratchi, 1988; Golait & Kishore, 1990). Table 1 summarises some of the methods used in the prediction of volume
change behaviour of clayey soils.
Out of many methods, indirect estimations using soil liquid limit (LL) and plasticity index (PI) appear to be the
preferred alternative due to the practical easiness of the experimental procedures. Several studies have been carried out
in an attempt to establish possible relationships between these index properties and I ss (e.g. Cameron, 1989; Delaney,
1996; Young & Parmar, 1999). In this study, volume change potential of some clayey soils is evaluated using shrink-

Australian Geomechanics Vol 38 No 2 June 2003 53


swell index method and indirect methods based on PI, LL, activity and percentage of clay. Also a new approach based
on free swell index is introduced and discussed.
Table 1: Some reported methods used to identify soil reactivity
Reference Basis Approach
Seed et al, (1962) Percent clay and activity Indirect
Van Der Merwe, (1964) PI, percent clay and activity Indirect
Dakshanamanthy & Raman, (1973) PI and LL Indirect
Vijayvergiya & Chazzaly, (1973) LL, water content and dry unit weight Indirect
Cameron, (1989)* Core Shrinkage Index, loaded Direct
Shrinkage Index, Shrink-Swell Index
Australian Standard 1289.7.1.1 Core Shrinkage Index, loaded Direct
(1998)* Shrinkage Index, Shrink-Swell Index
McKeen, (1992) Soil Suction, soil water content Direct
Sridharan et al, (1985) Free Swell Index Direct
Hettiaratchi, (1987) Free Swell Index Direct
Golait & Kishore, (1990) Free Swell Index Direct
* The methods proposed by Australian Standard 1280.7.1.1 and Cameron (1989) are generally used to classify
reactive sites into different classes based on soil volume change potentials and therefore can be utilised to identify
soil reactivity.

The results presented in this paper are extracted from a postgraduate study that investigated long-term behaviour of
landfill clay liners (Jayasekera, 2002). The soil samples contained a high percentage of clay contents (63% to 80%).
The experimental soils are known to be of basaltic origin and, as confirmed by the X-Ray diffraction analysis, the major
clay mineral type in these soils was found to be montmorillonite. According to unified soil classification system, all the
samples are classified as high plastic clay (CH).

The following were carried out in this study.
(i) Shrink- Swell Index
(ii) Liquid experiments Limit and Plastic Limit
(iii) Free Swell Index (FSI).
Other required tests such as standard Proctor compaction, grain size distribution (sieve analysis in combination with
hydrometer test) and specific gravity tests were also conducted in accordance with relevant Australian Standards.


There are several methods proposed to evaluate soil reactivity such as core shrinkage test, loaded shrinkage test and
shrink – swell index test (AS 1289.7.1.1, 1998; Cameron, 1989). From these tests, shrink – swell index (I ss) test does not
require measurement of soil suction (suction is generally given in a logarithmic unit pF = log (10u) where u is suction in
kPa) and does not depend on the initial moisture condition. Unlike most other reactivity tests where only either a swell
test or a shrinkage test is performed, Iss test comprises of both a swelling test as well as a shrinkage test on a companion
sample at the same moisture condition, so that the total strain (volume change) is calculated from the test results. I ss
represents the deformation which occurs in a unit height (depth) of soil in response to a unit change in pF.
In this study, for the evaluation of soil reactivity, shrink-swell index tests (Iss) were conducted according to the
Australian Standards (AS 1289.7.1.1, 1998). The swell test samples as well as the core shrinkage test samples were
remoulded at the maximum dry density and the optimum water content, which were obtained from the relevant standard
compaction curves.
The shrink – swell index (Iss) was calculated using the following equation as given in the Australian standards and
proposed by Cameron (1989).

54 Australian Geomechanics Vol 38 No 2 June 2003


⎡ε sw ⎤ + ε
⎢ 2 ⎥⎦
I ss = ⎣
1 .8
where εsw is the swelling strain; the total swell expressed as a percentage of the initial height of the specimen less any
initial settlement observed prior to inundation of the sample and εsh is the total shrinkage strain to the oven dry condition
in percent.
In Equation (1) the total swelling strain εsw is reduced by a factor of two to account for the horizontal restraint provided
by the rigid sample ring in the swelling test. More explanation and justification of this reduction factor can be found in
Cameron (1989). The total strain (both swelling and shrinkage) is then divided by a factor of 1.8 (denominator of
Equation 1), which is recognized as the likely soil suction range over which volume changes are almost linearly
proportional to the suction changes for Melbourne region. Using the recommended soil suction and values for a site and
maximum depth of influence to suction change as 2 m, Iss can satisfactorily be used in classifying a site using a scale
from slightly reactive to extremely reactive.


These tests were conducted in accordance with the relevant Australian standards (AS 1289.3.1.1, 1995). Distilled water
was used as the mixing liquid for all experiments.


The Free Swell Index (FSI) test is not a common laboratory experiment for the determination of volume change
potential of a clay soil and a standard procedure does not exist for this test. However, there are a few reported instances
where this experiment has been used successfully for the estimation of soil volume change (e.g. Sridharan et al, 1985;
Hettiaratchi, 1988; Golait & Kishore, 1990).
FSI tests for this study were conducted using a method proposed by Jayasekera & Mohajerani (2001), based on the
methods described by Hettiaratchi (1988) and Golait & Kishore (1990). The test procedure is as follows. 10 g of fully
dried soil passing 425 μm sieve is placed in a 100 ml graduated cylinder. The soil is poured into the graduated cylinder
in small batches of 1 g in order to achieve the same packing and compacting effect. The initial dry volume of this soil is
measured by reading the graduation mark up to the level that the dry soil is filled in the cylinder. The cylinder is then
filled with demineralised water up to 100 ml mark. The soil-water mix inside the cylinder is then allowed to swell under
controlled laboratory conditions. The gradually swollen volume of soil inside the cylinder is recorded by observing the
graduation mark up to which the soil is rising, every 2 hrs at the beginning and generally thereafter every 24 hrs until a
reasonable equilibrium volume is reached. An average test usually runs for about 48 hrs. In this study, tests were
triplicated to achieve a reasonable degree of accuracy.
FSI (%) is a non-dimensional parameter, which represents the volume change of a soil from fully dried status to fully
swollen state when exposed to water. FSI is calculated using the following equation proposed by Golait & Kishore
FSI = (VL – VS) / VS x 100 (2)
Where VS is the volume of a given mass (10 g) of fully dried experimental soil (volume is measured by reading the
graduation mark up to which dry soil occupies in the cylinder) and VL is the final equilibrium volume of this soil when
it is immersed in water in the 100 ml graduated cylinder.


Figure 1 shows that strong correlations exist between the clay content and both Iss and FSI values found in this study for
the experimental soils. Also, the experimental data were utilised to identify the possible relationships between different
soil parameters such as LL, PI, activity, Iss and FSI. Although some previous studies have shown unsatisfactory
relationships between index properties and Iss, (e.g. Cameron, 1989; Delaney, 1996; Mitchell, 1996 cited by Delaney,
1996; Young & Parmar, 1999), the present study yielded sound correlations between these soil parameters, as shown in
Figure 2. It can be seen from this figure that Iss maintains a direct and distinct linear relationship with FSI, LL, PI and
Out of the different classification systems given in Table 1, two basic methods were used to classify the experimental
soils. A possible classification based on FSI results is also suggested and a summary of different classification results
for the experimental soil samples is presented in Table 2

Australian Geomechanics Vol 38 No 2 June 2003 55


Since all the soil samples used in this study consist of very high clay contents (generally greater than 63%) and the
majority of clay minerals in the experimental soils are highly reactive montmorillonite, all the classification systems
tended to categorise the soils as highly to very highly reactive clays. The available relationships encouragingly suggest
that further investigation incorporating different soil types with different clay contents could pave the way to
establishing some classification criteria based on FSI for soils with varying degrees of volume change potentials. The
results presented here show that FSI could reliably indicate the soil expansivity and hence could be readily utilised as a
quick method in the identification of reactive soils.

Figure 1 Relationships between clay content and (a) FSI and (b) Iss

Figure 2: Relationships between Iss and (a) Activity, (b) PI, (c) LL and (d) FSI

56 Australian Geomechanics Vol 38 No 2 June 2003


Table 2: Classification of experimental soil samples based on volume change potentials

Sample % LL PI A Iss FSI Classification model
No. clay Seed et al (1962) AS 1289.7.1.1 (1998) Proposed
(based on % clay (based on Iss) classification based
and Activity) on FSI
1 63 69 29 0.45 3.8 266 H H H
2 63.5 69 29 0.45 3.98 262 H H H
3 64.5 3.89 213 H H
4 65 4.12 294 H H
5 66 73 34 0.52 4.24 309 H H H
6 67 4.2 320 H H
7 68 75 33 0.49 340 H H
8 69 4.44 448 H VH
9 70 83 41 0.59 4.5 445 H/VH H VH
10 70 83 38 0.54 458 H VH
11 71 77 35 0.52 430 H VH
12 71 84 43 0.60 368 H/VH VH
13 72 388 VH
14 73 85 45
15 74 82 44 0.59 5.03 502 VH H VH
16 74 91 51 0.69 VH
17 75 87 45 0.60 498 VH VH
18 75.5 87 49 0.65 VH
19 76 90 48 0.63 5.8 608 VH E VH
20 76.5 85 41 0.53 VH
21 77 82 41 0.53 VH
22 78 90 48 0.69 6.01 560 VH E VH
23 78 96 52 0.67 512 VH VH
24 78.5 96 51 0.65 VH
25 80 96 59 0.75 5.89 590 VH E VH
Notes: H = Highly reactive; VH = very highly reactive; E = Extremely reactive


In this study, volume change potentials of several clay soil samples were evaluated using methods based on shrink-swell
index (Iss) and soil consistency limits and a simple method using free swell index (FSI). Strong correlations were found
between Iss and plasticity index (PI), liquid limit (LL), activity (A) and FSI. Also, linear relationships were found
between the clay content and both Iss and FSI values for the experimental soils used in this study. Classification of
volume change potentials of the soils using methods based on Iss values, activity and FSI is presented and discussed.
From the limited test results available, it is evident that FSI could be a satisfactory indicator of the volume change
potential of clayey soils. Further investigation incorporating soil samples with a full range of swelling potentials is
needed to establish some classification criteria based on FSI.

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