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EG&G (AMEC2121) 1 PROF.


Measures of soil “density”

The density of the soil particles themselves is denoted ρs
(the soil particle density, or mass per unit volume), and
Va air Wa= 0
for many soils, this is between 2.6 and 2.7 t/m3. The
density of water ρw is 1 t/m3. The relative density of the Vv
soil particles is therefore Gs = ρs/ρ
ρw (being a ratio, this is Vw water Ww
just a dimensionless number).
As we are generally dealing with soil on the earth’s surface
(and not on the moon, or in a centrifuge with elevated g-
level), we are usually interested in the forces in soil, and Vs soil
hence we are more interested in weight than density, where
weight is simply ρ.g (and g, the acceleration due to the
earth’s gravity, is 9.81 m/s2). Thus, instead of using
density all the time, we use unit weight γ (where γ = ρ.g, Phase Diagram
and has units of kN/m3). The unit weight of water, γw, is
therefore 9.81 kN/m3. The unit weight of quartz (the mineral that many sands are comprised of) is about
26 kN/m3 (that is, a solid 1 m3 block of silica would weigh 26 kN.)
If a 1 m3 container is filled with dry silica sand, the weight would be considerably less than the weight of
a solid block of silica, due to the air-filled voids between the particles.
In civil engineering, the basic means of expressing the density of packing is to use the voids ratio (e):

where Vv is the volume of the voids, and Vs is the volume of the “solids” (soil particles). Note that e can
be greater than 1 (and it very often is for clay soils).
So, for our 1 m3 box of dry sand, the total weight of the soil in this state is the dry unit weight (γγd):
Ws γ V γ s Vs γ s Vs γ
γd = = s s = = = s
VT Vs + Vv Vs + eVs Vs (1 + e ) 1 + e
If the voids are now completely filled with water, the box will of course be heavier. The weight would
now correspond to the saturated unit weight (γγsat).
Ws + Ww γ s Vs + γ w Vw γ s Vs + γ w eVs γ s + e γ w
γ sat = = = =
VT Vs + Vv Vs + eVs 1+e
The “wetness” of a soil is described (in civil engineering) on a weight basis:
w= (often expressed as %)
(i.e. as the weight of water divided by the weight of the dry soil. This is found by weighing the wet
sample first, then drying it in the oven, then weighing the dry soil).
From this, we can relate the water content and the void ratio (for saturated) soil:

School of Civil & Resource Engineering, The University of Western Australia


Ww γ w Vw γ w eVs γ w e e
w= = = = = , or e = w G s
Ws γ s Vs γ s Vs γs Gs
From these relationships, we can see that:

 γs 
 
γd  1+e γs 1 1 1
= = = = = .
γ sat  γs + e γ w  γs + e γ w 1 + e γ w 1 + e 1+w
 
 1+e  γs Gs

γ sat
γd =
Example: Saturated soil: Suppose γs = 26.5 kN/m3, and γw = 10 kN/m3 (rounded for convenience), and
void ratio e = 0.5:

γs 26.5
γd = = = 17.67 kN/m3 (in a cubic metre of the soil, the ‘solids’ weigh 17.67 kN)
1 + e 1.5
γ s + e γ w 26.5 + 0.5 × 10
γ sat = = = 17.67 + 3.33 = 21 kN/m3 (the water filled voids only
1+e 1.5
contribute 3.33 kN in every cubic metre).
Ww 3.33
We can see from this that, for this case w = = = 18.9 %
Ws 17.67

Partially saturated soil:

For partially saturated soil, the voids are partly filled with water. The ‘degree of saturation’ Sr is defined
as: Sr = = 1.0 (or 100%) if fully saturated, or 0.0 if completely dry. The relationships above change
to take account of this – effectively, every time there is a conversion from Ww to Vv in the above
derivations, the steps are that Ww = γwVw = γwSrVv = γwSreVs. Thus, everywhere we have e in the above
equations, we have Sr.e (which defaults to e when Sr = 1 – i.e. when fully saturated). Thus:

γ s + Sr e γ w γ S e S e wG s
γ wet (or just γ ) = , and w = w r = r , or e =
1+ e γs Gs Sr
Thus, for the example above, if the degree of saturation is only 80% (Sr = 0.8), but with the same void
ratio (0.5), the dry unit weight γd does not change, but the wet unit weight and the water content change:

γ s + e Sr γ w 26.5 + 0.5 × 0.8 × 10

γ wet = γ = = = 17.67 + 2.67 = 20.33 kN/m3 , and
1+e 1.5
Ww 2.67 γ
w= = = 15.1 % (Note: γ d = still holds – check for this example).
Ws 17.67 1+w

School of Civil & Resource Engineering, The University of Western Australia


Measuring ‘density’ and determining other parameters:

To obtain ‘density’ parameters for soil in the ground, two approaches are useful.
If we are sure the soil is saturated, then we can determine all the ‘density’ properties by simply measuring
the water content, and measuring (or guessing) the soil particle density. Then the void ratio is obtained
from: e = w.Gs, and all the others follow (dry unit weight γd, saturated unit weight γsat)
If we are not sure the soil is saturated, then we have to obtain an ‘undisturbed’ sample, measure its wet
density γwet, measure the water content, work out the dry unit weight γd, and work out the degree of
One way of taking an ‘undisturbed’ sample is to jack in a thin-walled sampling tube into the bottom of a
borehole, and retrieve a soil sample within the tube. Having carefully trimmed the
sample within the tube to be cylindrical, the L and D of the sample are measured, to
determine the volume (VT). The full tube is weighed, and, after extruding the
sample and cleaning the tube, the empty tube is weighted. The difference gives the
total (wet) weight of the sample (WT). This gives the wet (or it may be the
saturated) unit weight:

Then, either by drying a portion of the sample, or the whole sample, the water
content (w) is obtained. This allows the dry unit weight to be determined:

γd =
The γs (or Gs) value has to be determined (see the link to Laboratory Tests link on
the website, and look for Specific Gravity test). This then allows the void ratio to
be found, from
Ws γ γ γ − γd
γd = = s (from above), which gives: e = s − 1 = s .
VT 1 + e γd γd
Alternatively, since we know the volume of water in the sample – Vw = Ww γ w = (WT − Ws ) γ w
–and we can work out the volume of the solids from the measured weight of the solids (i.e. the total dry
weight) – Vs = γ s Ws – and we know the total volume from the measurements we made on the sample,
Vw Vw
we can work out the volume of air: Va = VT − Vs − Vw , which gives Sr = =
Vv Vw + Va
An example for you to work out is provided in Tutorial #2.

School of Civil & Resource Engineering, The University of Western Australia