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Wan, R. & Pinheiro, M. (2008) On diffuse failure in geomaterials. 4th Intl. Workshop in Comp.

Geotechnics, IWS-Pittsburgh, USA, 20-23

October, 2008.

On diffuse failure in geomaterials

Richard Wan
Department of Civil Engineering, University of Calgary (
Mauricio Pinheiro
Department of Civil Engineering, University of Calgary (

ABSTRACT: In this contribution we show that conventional analysis of failure characterized by unlimited strains under constant
stress may not be sufficient to assure geostructures as safe since instability phenomena may still occur before plastic limit conditions
are reached. For example, saturated sand, when subjected to constant shear test path under axisymmetric loading conditions with im-
posed flux, spontaneously collapses after stress level reaches values well below the Mohr-Coulomb plastic limit. This mode of failure
is diffuse with no apparent failure plane or localized deformations. It corresponds to the violation of Hill's stability condition (Hill
1958) and the loss of controllability (uniqueness) at the material level (Nova 1994).

1 INTRODUCTION example concerns the diffuse flow failure in the constant shear
test analyzed as a complete three-dimensional problem involving
In geomechanics, failure commonly reveals itself as instability a cylindrical soil specimen. A spatially non-correlated Gaussian
of an otherwise homogeneous state in the form of rupture pat- distribution of initial void ratio will be assumed. Such perturba-
terns with and without sharp discontinuities, e.g. shear-bands tion (disturbance) in the specimen is shown to be essential in in-
and fractures. This instability arises from the interaction of par- ducing diffuse instability in some cases. The closing example re-
ticles down to the mesoscale; therefore pertains to material or fers to the analysis of failure in a slope loaded such that the
constitutive type. As such it is important to understand and in- resulting effective stress paths are akin to those in a constant
clude micromechanical features when formulating constitutive shear test. The development of diffuse failure occurring well be-
models for granular materials. Material instability is a basic pre- fore plastic limit conditions is demonstrated.
requisite for capturing the rich variety of unstable deformation
modes commonly observed in boundary value problems. Among
various manifestations of material instability, we are particularly
interested in diffuse failure characterized by the absence of
strain localization. As a prominent example, Figure 1 shows the
instability of homogeneous deformations resulting into the for-
mation of unstable force chains to a sudden loss in inter-particle
contacts to collapse in an analogue granular assembly of pentag-
onal photo-elastic disks subject to biaxial shearing under load
control. Apart from the evidence of a length scale larger than a
single particle on material response, there is also an interesting
analogy of this phenomenon with static liquefaction in loose
sand under undrained shearing and load control. The effective
stress ratio passes through a peak at which the material suddenly
succumbs and loses strength. The deformations are diffuse with
the important observation that the effective stress ratio at col-
lapse is well below the usual plastic limit defined by Mohr- FH FH
Mathematically, the diffuse type of instability has its origins
in the loss of positive definiteness of the incremental constitutive
relation (tensor D) under a certain loading program. The connec-
tion with the vanishing of the second-order work introduced by
Hill (1958) is also well recognized. The non-symmetry of D, as
Figure 1: Diffuse failure in an analogue granular material composed of
is the case for non-associated plastic geomaterials, indicates the photo-elastic material. Interference fringes reveal complex force chains
possibility of loss of determinacy in incremental material re- in stable, metastable and unstable states as well as the micromechanical
sponse well before peak conditions. At the boundary value prob- nature of material instability (after Al-Mamun 2004).
lem level, this indeterminacy leads to a multiplicity of solutions
for the under-lying governing equations, and hence represents a
bifurcation problem. 2 DIFFUSE INSTABILITY
As to illustrate the various conditions on diffuse instability, a
series of constant shear (deviatoric stress q) tests is numerically As pointed out in the introduction, the notion of diffuse instabil-
simulated. The role played by the control parameters is also dis- ity is linked to Hill’s (1958) criterion, which associates instabil-
cussed. Especially important in these numerical analyses is to ity to the loss of the positiveness of the second-order work de-
reveal the existence of domains within the plastic limit surface fined as the product of the incremental stress and strain during a
where instability, bifurcation and loss of uniqueness may take loading increment, as given below:
place. In the final part of this paper, we extend the computations
to a boundary value problem setting in two examples. The first W2  d  d (1)
where dσ is the stress increment vector and dε, its strain work- surface constitutive law originally developed by Wan & Guo
conjugate related through the tangent constitutive matrix D. This (1999) and founded on Rowe’s (1962) stress-dilatancy theory,
result arises from the study of equilibrium states subject to small which establishes a linear relationship between stress ratio and
disturbances which indicates that the internal energy minus the strain increment ratio (i.e. dilatancy) through energetic princi-
work done by external forces must be strictly positive for stabil- ples and Roscoe & Burland’s (1968) concept of critical state soil
ity to prevail. Furthermore, recalling the tangent constitutive ma- mechanics which, defines a theoretical state where the material
trix, Eq. (1) can be recast into: is continuously distorted under no change in volume and stress
ratio. These two frameworks were enriched in order to incorpo-
W2  d T  D  d (2) rate pyknotropy (density), barotropy (stress level) and anisotro-
py (fabric) dependencies, as well as cyclic loading regime condi-
which points to the positive-definiteness of D if W2 is to remain
tions (see Wan & Guo 2001a, b, 2004).
positive. Furthermore, advocating the theorem of Ostrowski &
The incremental elastic response is nonlinear, arising from
Taussky (1951) as introduced by Nova (1994), we know that
the assumption of an increasing shear modulus, G, under com-
detD ≥ detDsym > 0; where Dsym denotes the symmetric part of D.
pressive loading. Although the model is characterized by two
Therefore, the positiveness of the second-order work criterion is
yield surfaces: one that treats deviatoric loading dominated by
guaranteed by the following alternate form:
dilatancy and another that accounts solely for isotropic loading
det Dsym  0  stability (3) producing plastic volumetric compressive strains, we restrict our
simulations of the constant shear tests to the deviatoric (shear)
Hence, the conclusion is that the second-order work criterion yield surface only due to the nature of the loading direction. The
provides a lower bound for the plastic limit condition given by mathematical structure of WG-model under this condition is
detD = 0. summarized in Table 1.
Yet, a more subtle question surrounds the issue of loss of In summary, the WG-model comprises of a plastic potential,
uniqueness of material response and its relationship to the sec- flow rule and hardening law, in addition to a yield surface. The
ond-order work. In a lab experiment, a soil specimen may be resulting incremental plastic response is described by a non-
subjected to mixed loading programs whereby either pressure, or associated flow rule derived from the enriched stress-dilatancy
force, or displacement is being controlled simultaneously. It may theory proposed in Wan & Guo (1999). It is reminded that the
happen that during the course of loading, one or a combination non-associativity of the plastic flow rule is one of the prerequi-
of these control parameters can no longer be controlled. Nova sites for triggering material instability as mentioned in the be-
(1994) referred to that phenomenon as loss of controllability, a ginning of the paper. Finally, the updating of the shear-yield sur-
concept synonymous to non-uniqueness of the incremental solu- face is governed by the mobilized friction angle that acts as a
tion of the underlying constitutive equations. In other words, main hardening variable, which in turn is directly controlled by
controllability signifies that a loading programme can only be the plastic strains and density state as shown in Table 1.
implemented if a unique incremental response is produced at
every incremental loading step (Nicot & Darve 2009).
As such, consider the following generic constitutive relation: Table 1: Main equations of the WG-model for loadings conditions only
involving the shear-yield surface (Wan & Guo 2004, Wan et al. 2009)
A  dr  dc (4)
Definitions Equations
where the non-zero vector dc contains the controlled parameters Elastic d ev  dp K ; d e  dq 3G
and dr, the measured or response variables for a given load pro-
gram (or test). The matrix A is related to the constitutive tensor K  2G 1    3 1  2 
D as a re-arrangement of row and columns. Control of the load-  2  e 2  p 1 2
G G 0 p0
ing program is lost whenever detA is zero. As such, this evokes 1  e  p 0 
the following corollary: controllability of load parameters and
uniqueness of incremental response are guaranteed if A is posi- Yield surface f  q  Mp
tive definite. In turn, whenever A is positive definite, it is 2
straightforward to show that the second-order is also positive: M  M TC
(1  m )  (1  )t
W2  dr  dc  dr T  A  dr  0 for dr  0 (5) 6sin m
M TC 
3  sin m
Therefore, the above establishes the connection between sec-
Potential function g  q  sin  m p
ond-order work and loss of controllability or uniqueness in ma-
terial response. sin m  sin f
sin  m 
More recently, Nicot & Darve (2007) have introduced the 1  sin m sin f
concept of sustainability of equilibrium states as a means to pro- nf
vide a physical meaning to the loss of uniqueness of incremental F   p  e 
sin f    sin cs
material response. It is proposed that, when the sustainability of  0   p  ecs 
a mechanical state is lost, a rapid burst of kinetic energy might Hardening law  nm

take place if a proper infinitesimal perturbation is imposed (Ni- p  e 

sin m    sin cs
cot et al. 2007). As such, there is a sudden transition from a qua-  0   p  ecs 
si-static regime to a dynamic one so that equations used before Evolution law ecs  ecs0 exp  h cs  p p 0  cs 

are no longer valid.

where p: mean effective stress; q: deviatoric stress; t = sin3θ (θ: Lode’s
angle); φm, φf, φcs: friction angles mobilized at failure and at critical state,
respectively; e, ecs: void ratio at current and at critical states, respective-
ly; γp: deviatoric plastic strain; ecs0, μ, αF, α0, nf, nm, ncs and hcs are materi-
al parameters; p0 = 1 kPa.
This section briefly describes WG-model, the elastoplastic con-
stitutive model that will be used throughout the paper to illus-
trate the instability issues alluded above. The WG-model is 4 NUMERICAL INVESTIGATION
based on the theory of multi-surface plasticity and on recent
concepts of micromechanics embedded in a stress-dilatancy law We begin the numerical investigation with the prototype test in
used as a plasticity flow rule. It is an outgrowth of a double yield which a soil sample is sheared at a given stress state in drained
conditions at constant deviatoric stress while the mean effective bifurcation point. It can be shown that if the same test is carried
stress is being reduced. This so-called constant shear test simu- out in mixed loading mode with the imposition of dq = 0 and the
lates the soil behaviour during water infiltration in slopes lead- injection of a small amount of fluid flux inside the specimen, the
ing to their eventual failure (Brand 1981, Sasitharan et al. 1993). very same point of bifurcation is obtained (Wan et al. 2009).
During water infiltration, external loads remain unchanged but However, the solution breaks down, which can be interpreted as
pore pressure increases slowly, which results into a loading path the collapse of the specimen, thus marking diffuse failure. Inter-
similar to the one in the constant shear test. A few of such lab estingly, this occurs well below the plastic limit surface. Here,
experimental results have been reported in the literature (Chu et the vanishing of the second-order work corresponds to a bifurca-
al. 2003, Darve et al. 2007) with the distinctive feature that the tion of the underlying solutions, and hence a loss of uniqueness
soil is brought to diffuse failure before reaching its plastic limit in material response.
In this section, we will analyze the constant shear test within
Hill’s stability theory and Nova’s controllability concept. The 250
stress path direction
WG-model will be used to describe the soil behaviour in all nu-

deviatoric stress (kPa)

merical simulations. The sign convention normally employed in 200
soil mechanics is herein used, that is, compressive stresses are 70
0. .80
positive. 150 = =0

e0 e0

4.1 Material point test 100
A straightforward simulation of the constant shear test involves 50
numerically integrating the stress-strain relationship in axisym-
metric stress and strain conditions. Thus, the following stress-
strain invariants are used: p = (σ1 + 2σ3)/3, q = σ1 – σ3, εv = ε1 + 0
0 100 200 300 400
2ε3 and γ = 2/3·(ε1 – ε3). The simulation proceeds in three steps,
mean effective stress (kPa)
namely: first, isotropic consolidate sample to 300 kPa (dσ1 = dσ3
> 0); secondly, shear sample along a conventional triaxial com-
pression path up to three different deviatoric stress levels: q = mean effective stress (kPa)
50, 100, and 200 kPa (dσ1 > 0, dσ3 = 0); and finally, load sample
at constant shear with decreasing mean effective stress (dσ1 = volumetric strain
0 100 200 300 400
dσ3 < 0) at each deviatoric stress level. 0
Figure 2 shows the numerical simulations of the above test
for two initial density levels: e0 = 0.70 and 0.80. All tests were (b)
carried out using WG-model and through a drained stress- 0.03
controlled loading program. In Table 1 we list the model param-
eters used for the material point tests.
Table 1: Material parameters of WG-model used for material point simu-
lations 1.0
second-order work (xE-9)

ecs0 ncs hcs sinφcs α0 nm αF nf mean effective stress (kPa)

0.75 0.5 0.005 0.50 0.005 1.50 0.0 1.50
μ G0 ν 0.0
0.80 200 0.30 0 100 200 300 400
-1.0 (c)
The second-order work under axisymmetric conditions can be
rewritten as follows:
W2  dpd v  dqd (7)

It is computed all along the loading path. Since dq = 0 and dp deviatoric strain
< 0 throughout the test, a vanishing second-order work is sig-
0 0.05 0.10 0.15 0.20
volumetric strain

naled whenever the volumetric strain reaches a peak (dεv = 0).

This is indeed verified in the numerical simulations as shown in 0
Figures 2b, c regardless of initial density (downward arrows in-
dicate the peak point for the looser geomaterial, e0 = 0.80). The (d)
locus of points for which the second-order work first vanishes
defines a so-called instability surface reminiscent of Lade
(1992)’s instability line which arbitrarily connects the peaks of 0.04
effective stress paths of loose sand responses under undrained
conditions. Here, in stark contrast with Lade’s instability line, Figure 2: Simulation of constant shear tests using WG-model: (a) loca-
the treatment of instability as the vanishing of the second-order tion of diffuse bifurcation points, (b) coincidence of volumetric strain
maxima with zero second-order work, (c) vanishing of the second-order
work carries both a mathematical and a physical meaning.
work (d) geomaterial dilatant behaviour
Moreover, from Figure 2a we conclude that the instability sur-
face is not unique but depends on the material density level, as
well as other factors like microstructure as Wan et al. (2009) 4.2 Constant shear test as a boundary value problem
have recently shown.
In the previous sub-section, only the homogeneous case in an
Figure 2a reveals that the test can proceed past the bifurcation
element test was examined, and hence, numerical results were
point due to the nature of the loading program, here stress-
limited to a proof of concept following which diffuse bifurcation
controlled. The test eventually terminates whenever the effective
could be embraced within the second-order work framework.
stress path reaches the plastic limit surface giving way to a dif-
Here, a more complete numerical analysis of the constant shear
ferent operating failure mode than the one (diffuse failure) at the
test using a 3D representation of the soil cylindrical specimen
including the interaction of a fluid phase and material imperfec- The specimen dimensions are 22 cm height and 10 cm diame-
tion is pursued to mimic the actual triaxial lab experimental test ter. The initial constraints imposed are: uz = 0 on all nodes of the
(Fig. 3a). As such, the anatomy of failure can be studied in an bottom surface and ux = uy = 0 on one node located at the axis of
initial boundary value setting as various deformation modes geometrical symmetry of the problem. A total of 5220 three-
emerge during loading history. dimensional C3D8 elements with eight nodes and full integra-
The WG-model was implemented into the commercial finite tion were used in these simulations (see Fig. 3a). A new set of
element code Abaqus (2006) through the user material subrou- material parameters are here employed as listed in Table 2 be-
tine facility called UMAT. As such, full advantage of the capa- low.
bilities of Abaqus can be taken in terms of the searching algo-
rithm for locating limit or bifurcation points. However, for Table 2: Material parameters of WG-model used for boundary value
ensuring robustness in the plasticity calculations, an implicit problems (cylindrical soil specimen and soil slope)
stress return and consistent tangent operator algorithm together ecs0 ncs hcs sinφcs α0 nm αF nf
with a spectral decomposition of the stress tensor were devel- 0.74 0.4 0.005 0.53 0.008 1.30 0.007 1.50
oped for the WG-model and implemented in UMAT. μ G0 ν
0.80 900 0.30

300 kPa
22 cm

200 kPa

Y 

10 cm (a) t = 50s t = 65s t = 80s t = 97s (b)

Figure 3: Evolution of second-order work in the middle transversal section of the specimen at various times during the shear constant loading path
(displacement magnification: x1)

The loading steps are essentially the same as those described specimen in the form of an infinitesimal fluid flux (10-6 m3/s),
in the previous sub-section, except that the initial mean effective the numerical computations broke down.
stress is p' = 200 kPa, followed by drained shearing to a devia- Finally, at time t = 97s Figure 3b shows the evolution of sec-
toric stress level q = 100 kPa. In addition to that, the constant ond-order work past the bifurcation point as the specimen fur-
shearing phase is simply modelled here by gradually increasing ther deforms with the loading path approaching the plastic limit
the pore pressure within the specimen by 150 kPa. This causes surface. There are two observations that are remarkable. First
both axial and confining effective stresses to decrease so that there is a relatively rapid increase in deformations describing the
deviatoric stress remains constant (dq = 0; dp' < 0). Drainage is transition from t = 80s to 97s as the plastic limit is approached.
allowed at both the top and bottom of the specimen while the Secondly, some zones of the specimen where the second-order
lateral sides are kept sealed to any flux. To allow a uniform in- work was clearly negative now revert to positive values and
crease of pore pressures in the specimen, a relatively high per- hence regain stability. It is plausible to attribute this phenome-
meability is used, i.e. k = 10-5 m/s. An initial imperfection in the non to the emergence of a lightly localized failure pattern in the
specimen is introduced through some material perturbation (fluc- core of the specimen. In other words, shear bands do not clearly
tuation) as a random distribution of initial void ratio field. Ideal- form but can still be delineated by regions where the second-
ly, a Gaussian distribution is chosen where the void ratio is made order work remain negative until the end of the test. It is noted
to spread about a mean value of 0.70 with a standard deviation that within a localized zone, the second-order work is also nega-
of 0.025, which corresponds to a hypothetical medium sand tive since localization is only a special case of the more general
case. Hill’s stability criterion as discussed earlier in Section 2.
Figure 3b shows snapshots of the second-order work distribu-
tion in the middle transversal section of the specimen at various
4.3 Slope undergoing water infiltration process
times corresponding to the q-constant portion of the loading
path. It is noted that the ‘red (darker)’ zones refer to regions The second-order work criterion in relation to diffuse failure was
where the second-order work criterion has been violated (W2 ≤ investigated in the q-constant experimental lab test under
0). Given the initial void ratio fluctuation in space, every materi- drained conditions. Although it was convincingly demonstrated
al point follows a different constant q loading path, and hence that diffuse instability could occur at stress levels well below the
the second order-work is violated heterogeneously throughout plastic limit surface, we now pass from the lab experiment scale
the specimen. At time t = 80s, the second-order work is perva- to the field scale. Accordingly, the following sub-section eluci-
sively violated throughout the specimen, corresponding to dif- dates the emergence of diffuse failure in a slope subject to a
fuse failure. Although all stress states are far from the plastic loading path akin to a q-constant effective stress path.
limit surface (mobilized friction is around 24º as opposed to 32º In the following, we investigate the failure of a 2D (plane
at plastic limit), the sample is unstable according to Hill’s stabil- strain) slope subject to water infiltration. Such a process is here-
ity criterion. In fact, the specimen is on the verge of collapse as in idealized by imposing a uniform excess pore pressure of 20
confirmed in the numerical simulations. More precisely, when a kPa onto the initial equilibrium pore pressure field. The slope
small amount of fluid was introduced through the bottom of the has an angle of 37º and consists of a medium sand with an initial
void ratio e0 = 0.70 and with the same material parameters as the The distribution of mobilized friction angle throughout the
ones used in the constant shear test in the previous section. slope is depicted in Figure 4b at various times. Notice that most
Figure 4a shows the evolution of the deviatoric plastic of the slope is at a mobilized friction angle of 24º, hence at stress
strains, γp, throughout the slope at three selected times, with the states well below the plastic limit surface. There is only a lim-
last one being the end of the analysis when convergence towards ited area near the top face of the slope that has reached a friction
equilibrium could not be achieved anymore. The plastic devia- angle of 32º corresponding to plastic failure conditions con-
toric strains first concentrates at mid height just below the crest sistent with a medium sand. This latter region correlates well
of the slope. This high plastic zone propagates inwards to the with the zone of intense plastic shear strains as in Figure 4a at
right while another plastic zone develops along the full face of time t = 63.4s. Note the time here is just used for illustrative
the slope. Finally, there is a small localized zone of high plastic purposes and depends on the permeability of the soil used.
shear strains (γp = 6%) that emerges near the top face of the

p 8.50
(a) 5.70
sin  m 0.60
W2 (+)
(c) ()

t = 40 s t = 54 s t = 63.4 s

Figure 4: Time evolution of (a) plastic shear strain, (b) mobilized friction, and (c) second-order work fields (displacement magnification: x1)

Figure 4c shows the zones where the second-order work has and hence give rise to diffuse failure, namely, the case of a slope
become negative and these do not strictly coincide with the zone subject to a generalized increase in pore pressures as a result of a
of high plastic shear strains, but rather with the ones at low mo- water infiltration process. Finite element computations reveal
bilized friction angles. This indeed reveals that diffuse failure that regions of non-positive second-order work are quite exten-
occurs well inside the plastic limit. The ‘red (darker)’ zone re- sive at a premature stage of the loading process. Interestingly, by
fers to the part of the slope that is marginally unstable and that contrast with the extent of second-order work violation, the zone
can succumb to diffuse failure as soon as a small perturbation is of highly plastic deformations is less developed. If the zone of
applied to the slope. Indeed, if some infinitesimal fluid flux were negative second-order work were sufficiently developed, any
to be applied to the slope, numerical breakdown would occur, perturbation applied to this state of equilibrium would lead to
meaning collapse of the slope. This collapse should be indeed spontaneous generalized (diffuse) failure with the rapid conver-
catastrophic as per the concept of loss of sustainability of equi- sion of potential energy into an outburst of kinetic energy. A
librium states which is expressed as an outburst in kinetic energy flow slide triggered by some subtle changes in loading condi-
(Nicot et al. 2007). tions (control parameters) is an example of bifurcation in mate-
rial response with the emergence of diffuse mode and release of
kinetic energy without any incremental supply of energy to the
5 CONCLUSIONS system. The numerical challenge is to compute the post diffuse
bifurcation mode which is a flow type of failure.
The diffuse failure of geomaterials was the main discussion in
this paper. The premise was that instability, expressed by vari-
ous deformation modes, may occur well before the plastic limit. ACKNOWLEDGEMENT
This theoretical notion is verified at two levels. At the lab exper-
imental level, the constant shear test is analyzed in relation to The financial support provided by the Natural Science and Engi-
diffuse failure and loss of controllability. It is clearly shown that neering Research Council (NSERC) is acknowledged.
the loading direction associated with a constant shear effective
stress path violates the second-order work and gives way to dif-
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