You are on page 1of 8

Development of a PC-based bender element system for shear wave

measurements in soft soil

LaRochelle, E.P., Schmalz, D.A. & Sheahan, T.C
Northeastern University, USA
Landon, M.M. & DeGroot, D.J.
University of Massachusetts Amherst, USA

Keywords: nondestructive tests, sample disturbance, shear modulus, digital techniques

ABSTRACT: The paper describes a recently developed system for controlling a bender element test,
monitoring the test process, and analyzing the resulting data using a software interface programmed in
MATLAB that interfaces with a PCI data acquisition card. The combined advancements in software and
hardware capabilities allow for mimicking functionalities of both of the traditional components of the bender
element system, the function generator and oscilloscope, and for facilitating the interpretation of test results.
Testing issues related to analog components and signal processing are mitigated due to the digital basis for
this system. The system was proof-tested using samples of Boston blue clay taken from the Newbury,
Massachusetts test site, and found to be consistent with previous measurements made using a multi-
component system. The development of the current system has the potential to make bender element testing
more accessible to laboratories, and lead to more consistent results. In addition, field deployment of the
system for sample disturbance assessment and other field applications is more feasible.

1 INTRODUCTION analog-based system. The result is a system that is

able to perform the bender element test more
Bender elements were first introduced into soil efficiently, with reduced potential for operator error,
applications in the late 1970’s to provide a simple and with significantly decreased processing time for
and accurate alternative to other more complicated running a test. The design also provides a more
laboratory small strain shear modulus tests. Bender portable and cost-effective system that can be used
elements are small piezoceramic plates that oscillate in the laboratory or be deployed for field use.
when electrically charged by a variable voltage or
produce a voltage when stimulated by a vibration.
When placed into a specimen of soil, this oscillation 2 BACKGROUND
can be utilized to send a shear wave through the soil.
By inserting a bender element at each end of a soil Prior to the successful development of bender
specimen, a wave can be both sent and received elements, the most common method for determining
using these elements. The characteristics of the sent Gmax was the resonant column test, performed in the
and received waves can then be used to determine laboratory using relatively complex equipment
the small strain shear modulus, Gmax, which is useful operated by experienced technicians. This is
when dealing with engineering projects that are expensive, time consuming, and subject to potential
adversely affected by vibrations and ground operator error. Thus, bender element testing was
movement (Landon 2004). investigated to provide an alternative that is simple
This paper describes the development of a PC- and manageable. Comprehensive literature surveys
based bender element system that consists of the PC, on bender element use for geotechnical laboratory
a PCI data acquisition board (signal generation via a applications have been carried out by others. For
digital-to-analog converter, and signal measurement example, recently Landon (2004) and Landon et al.
using an analog-to-digital converter), and software- (2007) reported on relevant developments in this
based data processing. By using this PC-based area, so it will not be repeated in this paper.
system, much of the expensive and bulky equipment Past bender element set-ups have required
from the typical bender element set-up can be equipment consisting of a function generator, an
eliminated. The time delay for this system is oscilloscope, power source and a computer, as
insignificant and can be less variable than the shown schematically in Figure 1. In this set-up, a
bender element is excited with a function generator In this set-up a frequency filter could be
transmitting an input pulse, either a sine, square, or incorporated into the system to “clean” the signal of
modified sine wave. Typically, a sine wave is the disturbances such as ambient noise or static, which
preferred input signal since it is composed of a can cause the received signal to be unclear and hard
single frequency and therefore easier to interpret to interpret. While frequency filters do make it
(Landon 2004), while square waves are composites easier to interpret the received signals, it is not
of different frequency waves. necessary for transmitting and receiving a good
signal (Landon 2004).
The motivations for the present system’s design
are to minimize the components (and therefore cost)
of a bender element measurement system; and
reduce the errors associated with these traditional


3.1 Introduction
The set-up used in this research converted the
previous standard, consisting of multiple external
components and manual input adjustments and
calculations, to a solely PC-based arrangement. A
PCI data acquisition card (National Instruments
Figure 1. Schematic of traditional bender element system
6070E) installed in the computer is used to transmit
(Brocanelli and Rinaldi 1998).
and process signals, which replaces the need for a
function generator and oscilloscope. The bender
In order to measure the start of the input wave,
elements are connected to the PC via this card,
the function generator must be connected to the
which is controlled by a user-friendly software
oscilloscope. As the generated wave moves through
package developed using MATLAB 7.4. This
the soil specimen it can be refracted and reflected,
program is used to generate a signal with specified
resulting in multiple waves being detected by the
characteristics that can be transmitted to the sending
receiving bender element. This receiving bender
bender element tile. These inputs include the
element must also be connected to the oscilloscope
frequency, number of pulses, amplitude, period,
in order to record the received waves. From these
wave form, etc. This allows the characteristics of
measurements, one is able to find the travel time of
the desired wave to be quickly altered, thus reducing
the shear wave, i.e., the time for the shear wave to
testing time and increasing the system’s overall
travel from transmitting bender element to receiving
efficiency. Programming methods used to achieve
bender element. There are many methods available
the user interface are discussed in detail in section
to determine travel time; however, Lohani et al
(1999) reported that for sinusoidal waves, the most
Once the wave is generated and the received
consistent and accurate travel times were found
wave collected, plots of voltage versus time display
using the peak-to-peak method. The peak-to-peak
both the transmitted and received waves on the same
method refers to the time difference between the
absolute time axis. From this plot the user is able to
first peak on the transmitted sine wave and the
determine the travel time of the shear wave by
corresponding point on the received sine wave.
selecting points on the transmitted and received
One alternative to the peak-to-peak method is the
wave. The program then determines the time
first zero cross-over method. However, for a given
difference between the selected points and displays
set of conditions, the travel times determined by this
the travel time. The process by which the program
method can vary when the frequency is changed.
generates the graph and calculates the travel time is
Ideally, travel time should not be dependent on the
discussed in section 3.4.
frequency, and this inherent inconsistency develops
After the test has been completed and the
from human error and the magnification of near field
associated graph generated, the characteristics of the
effects, which can mask the initial arrival of the
wave and results of the test, including the graph, are
shear wave. In some cases, the cross-over method
saved. All test specifications and results are recorded
may be utilized; however, the travel times found
in a log with the date and time of the test noted. This
using both methods should be compared to make
file is appended as each new data set is recorded,
sure there is no significant deviation.
thus creating a cumulative log of test results.
By utilizing both the travel time and travel
Meanwhile, the graphs are saved to a folder that is
distance, the shear wave velocity can be calculated.
available so previously run experiments are easily system. This is done by aligning the bender element
viewable and accessible. Further signal processing tiles such that they are in tip-to-tip contact, and
can be performed to improve the readability of these transmitting a signal through the sending bender
graphs. element. The time difference between the initiation
of the transmitted wave and the first arrival of the
3.2 Bender Element Testing Apparatus received wave is determined.
The calibration completed on the current system
Based on previous work by Landon (2004), an
used an identical signal 25 times in order to find an
apparatus was fabricated to measure shear wave
average time delay. The standard signal utilized had
velocity in soft soil samples using bender elements.
a frequency of 2000 Hz and consisted of 20 pulses
The resulting design is shown in Figure 2 and
with a 0.01 second delay between pulses. An
consists of two mounting posts that can hold the top
average delay time of 8.22x10-6 seconds (8.2 µsec)
cap and base pedestal from the existing triaxial
was measured with a standard deviation of
testing apparatus to be used in the next phase of this
9.08x10-8 sec (0.091 µsec). This is comparable to
research. Each of these end pieces has a bender tile
the range given by Landon (2004) of 6 to 9 µsec.
installed and wired into it. The transmitting bender
While the delay time could have been incorporated
element is installed in the top cap, while the
into the shear wave velocity calculations, it is
receiving bender element is housed in the base
considered insignificant, so it was not considered.
pedestal (Figure 2).
Because both the average delay time is low relative
to the travel time, and the delay time standard
deviation is relatively low, the new system
eliminates a source of adjustment that was variable
within a system (introducing potential errors), and
tended to vary among different systems used.

3.4 Developing the Software-Based System

The main goal for developing a software-based
system was to eliminate the use of bulky and
expensive hardware external to the PC, while
streamlining the data collection and analysis
process. The current laboratory setup uses a
computer with a 3.2 GHz processor, 1GB of RAM,
and a PCI data acquisition card. This card has 2
analog output channels and 16 analog input channels
with a maximum sampling rate of 1.25 million
samples per second and 16-bit precision. The
software developed provides a user-friendly way to
interface with this card to transmit and receive
signals through the bender element setup.
Figure 3 provides an overview of the computer-
based bender system, where Fig. 3a shows the
hardware overview and Fig. 3b shows the path that
the signal follows. The signal is first generated
based on the specification given by the user. It then
travels from an analog output channel (ao0) to the
break-out box (shown in Fig. 3a) where the signal is
split using a BNC T-connector. At this tee, one
branch is connected to the transmitting bender
element, while the other is directly connected back
to an analog input channel (ai0). The receiving
bender element is attached to another analog input
Figure 2. Bender element jig with soil specimen installed. channel (ai3).
Connecting the analog output directly to the input
and sampling this simultaneously with the received
3.3 Calibration of the Bender Element Tiles signal reduces the calibration time to a negligible
As noted by Landon (2004), it is important to amount because both signals will experience the
calibrate the time lag or delay that occurs in the same delay. The following sections provide
system due to the circuit and processing speed of the additional details about the system.
Figure 3. (a) Schematic of laboratory setup (b) Wiring diagram used in this setup.

3.4.1 Specifying and Sampling a Signal 16 input channels were being used, the actual
For this test set-up, a software interface was sample rate per channel would be 78,125 samples
developed that is more user-friendly and requires per second. In this setup, the minimum required
less equipment-specific knowledge than configuring number of input channels is two. However, due to
a function generator and oscilloscope. This increases cross-talk among the channels, two channels were
the potential for wider use of bender elements for set to ground in order to isolate the two signals
testing in both the educational and commercial (transmitted and received) being measured. In other
testing lab environment. words, as the channels were being scanned, after the
To run a test the user must specify the desired transmitted signal was measured, the signal was
characteristics of the signal. The program currently grounded over two channels to ensure that the
is able to generate sine, square, and sawtooth waves. received signal was as uncompromised as possible
The user can specify the amplitude, frequency, by crosstalk from the transmitted signal. This
phase, DC-offset, and number of periods of the reduces the maximum sampling rate per channel to
desired wave. Additionally the user can choose to 312,500 samples per second. Although this is not as
stack the specified wave with a certain delay time fast as some data acquisition cards or oscilloscopes,
between each signal, which helps reduce noise and the rate is sufficient for these tests.
will be discussed further in section 3.4.2. The software calculates a minimum suggested
Referring to Figure 3, when the signal is sampling rate based on the user-defined output
generated it is sent through the analog output frequency, currently sampling ten points per period
channel (ao0) to the bender element. Simultaneously per channel. For example, if a 5 kHz sinusoidal
the analog input channels (ai0 ai1 ai2 ai3) begin wave is generated, the sampling rate calculated by
sampling at a specified rate. The PCI card used has a the program would be 200,000 samples per second,
sampling rate of 1.25 million samples per second. which is 10 samples per period per input channel.
This rate is divided between channels in use, so if all This rate is much less than the maximum rate of the
data acquisition function of the card (1.25MS/s), account this possibility when when making
which leaves room for increasing the sampling rate. measurements.
Sampling at higher rates will allow for more Each time a measurement is made, the data from
accurate representations of the analog wave, a specific test is saved in a file which can be opened
although this additional information will not have a later for further analysis of the signal. In addition to
major impact on the final measurements. this, a data logging file is automatically updated
with information about the test. This data is saved in
3.4.2 Analyzing the Signal
a tab delimited text format that can be easily
The program gives the user the option of sending
imported into a spreadsheet program to analyze
consecutive signals with a user-specified time delay
trends in the experiments.
between each signal. The program then aligns each
of these signals and averages the result. Stacking
these signals helps to reduce the noise. The program
then displays this result for the user to select the
points on the transmitted and received waves used to
4.1 Introduction
calculate the travel time.
There are three methods by which the travel time In order to prove the effectiveness of the digital
can be computed. The user can choose between bender element system, a sample of the same soil as
simply selecting a point on both the transmitted and that used by Landon (2004) and reported in Landon
received waves, or can choose between two methods et al. (2007) was tested using the current set-up.
where the computer interprets the zero cross-over or
the positions of the peaks (see Section 2). The 4.2 Soil Sample Characteristics and Preparation
software-embedded interpretation method should
The soil sample used in testing was Boston blue clay
reduce the error in measurements taken at different
(BBC) sampled from the Newbury, MA National
times or by different operators.
Geotechnical Experimentation Site. The soil was
With the zero cross-over method, the user selects
taken from block sample SBS12, which was taken at
a region on both the received and transmitted waves.
a depth of approximately 7.8 m.
The program then takes the sampled values in the
The sample was stored in a sealed and controlled
selected time interval and performs a linear fit. The
environment to prevent moisture exchange and
zero cross-over for the sent and received signals are
alteration of the soil’s properties. In order to
calculated by finding the roots of the equations of
confirm the sample’s integrity, the water content of
these lines and the travel time is calculated from the
a sample was taken and compared to that used by
time separating these points.
Karademir (2006), who used the same block sample.
Similarly, with the peak-to-peak method the user
Four sections were observed and the average water
again selects a region around both the transmitted
content was found to be 60.1%, compared to an
and received waves. The program performs a
average of 59.3% from Karademir (2006). Once the
second-order polynomial fit on the points of each
soil was tested for water content, a section was cut
signal in the two selected regions. To find the values
for use in the testing device. A sample of length
at the peaks, the roots of the derivative of the curve
11.84 cm (4.66 in; as obtained using the average of 3
are calculated. The travel time is then calculated
measurements from a depth micrometer) was
from the time increment separating these points.
prepared and was placed in the set-up. To allow for
Figure 4 shows an example of the software
direct soil-bender contact, it is important that the soil
interface, and typical results. There are two issues
sample is placed onto the tile as straight as possible
related to the current method apparent in the data
and without excessive smearing or remolding of soil
display (lower half of the interface). First, because
around the bender. The same care must be taken
of the way in which the circuit is configured (Fig.
when the top bender element is lowered down into
3b), residual “ghosting” of the signal is apparent.
the soil sample. If any remolding of the soil occurs,
The circled segment of the received signal shown in
the soil-bender element contact is decreased and can
Figure 4 shows the interference between the
lead to lower values of Vs. Once both bender
channels. The interference is most likely caused by
elements are securely embedded in the soil sample,
the way the hardware converts the analog signals.
as seen in Figure 2, the set-up is ready to transmit a
Further signal processing techniques could be used
to eliminate this effect.
In addition, it is noted that the received signal is
4.3 Testing and Data
inverted from the sent signal, which is a peculiarity
of the system configuration. This can be caused by Since the most difficult parameter to measure in
switching the polarity of the wiring or rotating one bender element testing is the travel time, the results
of the bender elements 180°. The user must take into from the cross-over and peak-to-peak methods are
compared. According to Lohani et al (1999), the
more precise and efficient method of these two is the summary table of results for the tests done at 1500,
peak-to-peak method. This is due to the fact that, 3000 and 5000 Hz. The received signals in Figures
because peaks are not distorted by changing 5a through 5c have each been magnified. Figure 5a
frequencies, there is little variation in travel time shows the zero cross-over method being
with various frequencies. Also, there is less human implemented on a 1500 Hz wave. As the frequency
error involved since the segment on the received of the transmitted signal increases it becomes harder
wave where the signal begins to peak is typically to visually identify the received wave, as can be seen
more evident than the cross-over point on the when comparing Figures 5b and 5c.
curves. However, when Landon (2004) compared For each trial, the results were analyzed using
travel times obtained using both methods, she found both the cross-over and peak-to-peak methods for
that the average percent difference was only 3%. travel time comparison. The resulting data indicated
So, despite the enhanced consistency offered by the that for a given frequency, comparing the average
peak-to-peak method, with adequate care, the cross- travel time found using the peak-to-peak method,
over method can provide similar consistency. 1.04 x 10-3 sec, with that of the cross over method,
To demonstrate the consistency of the improved 1.01 x 10-3 sec, the average difference was 2.9 x 10-5
set-up, two trials were run at each of 13 frequencies, sec, or about 3% of the two methods’ average,
varying from 1000 Hz. to 7000 Hz. Figure 4 which is exactly what Landon (2004) had reported.
showed the results for 1000 Hz, and Figures 5a So the dependence of travel time on both frequency
through 5c show the results for 1500, 3000, and and data interpretation method appears to be
5000 Hz, respectively. Also shown in Figure 5 is a minimal.

Figure 4. Example of interface display, 1000 Hz signal on Boston blue clay. The travel time is measured peak to peak. The circled
segment of the received wave is interference between channels.
(a) (b)


Computed Avg.
Travel Shear difference
Frequency Time
Time Wave between
(Hz) Analysis
(ms) Velocity, methods,
Vs (m/s) (ms)
Peak-to- 1.14 87.5
Peak 1.14 87.1
1500 0.00205
Zero 1.06 93.7
Crossover 1.07 93.5
Peak-to- 1.02 98.2
Peak 1.02 98.1
3000 0.0118
Zero 1.01 99.0
Crossover 0.98 101.5
Peak-to- 1.00 99.2
Peak 1.01 99.1
5000 0.00701
Zero 0.97 102.5
Crossover 0.96 104.1

Figure 5. Signal traces from bender element tests on Boston blue displayed on software interface, magnified for analysis: (a) 1500
Hz; (b) 3000 Hz; (c) 5000 Hz. Table shows detailed results from test series.

Averaging the values obtained using only the current test series was 95.7 m/s, a difference of only
cross-over method, an average shear wave velocity 3.8 m/s from the cross-over method.
of 99.0 m/s was obtained. This compares well with
the average shear wave velocity, 99.5 m/s, found
from the 6 block samples of BBC tested by Landon
et al. (2007) from the Newbury test site. The shear
wave velocity using the peak-to-peak methods in the

A new implementation of bender element Brocanelli, D. and Rinaldi, V. (1998). “Measurement of Low-
technology was described. In addition to the bender Strain Material Damping and Wave Velocity with Bender
element hardware (elements and wiring) and PC, the Elements in the Frequency Domain,” Canadian
new system is based solely on the use of a PC-based, Geotechnical Journal, 35(6), pp. 1032-1040.
PCI data acquisition card and interface software Karademir, T. (2006). “Use of a Computer Automated Triaxial
developed using a common software development Testing System for Assessing and Mitigating Sample
platform. This system eliminates the need for Disturbance,” M.S. thesis, Department of Civil and
external components in traditional bender element Enviromental Engineering, Northeastern University,
systems, i.e., an oscilloscope and a function Boston, MA.
generator. The software also includes an option to Lohani, T.N., Imai, G., and Shibuya, S. (1999).
conduct the data interpretation using conventional “Determination of Shear Wave Velocity in Bender Element
methods (peak-to-peak and zero cross-over). Thus, Test,” Proceedings of the 2nd International Conference on
the new system is more cost-effective, potentially Earthquake Geotechnical Engineering, pp. 101-106.
simpler to implement by a new user, and can reduce Landon, M.M. (2004). “Field Quantification of Sample
the possibility of errors, either from one test to Disturbance of a Marine Clay using Bender Elements,”
another under the same conditions or simply due to M.S. Thesis, Department of Civil and Enviromental
operator differences. Engineering, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA.
The PCI card used in this experiment is also Landon, M.L., DeGroot, D.J. and Sheahan, T.C. (2007). “Non-
manufactured using a Firewire connection, in place destructive Sample Quality Assessment of a Soft Clay
of the PCI connection. Using a Firewire connection using Shear Wave Velocity,” ASCE Journal of
would allow this system to be implemented using a Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Engineering, 133(4),
laptop computer, which would have great benefit in pp. 424-432.
field measurements. Other connections, such as USB
and PCMCIA, can also be used to interface between
laptop computers and similar data acquisition
devices. To avoid crosstalk among channels, for
which the work-around of scanning grounded
intermediate channels was implemented, a data
acquisition card designed for simultaneous sampling
could be used.
In tests on block samples of Boston blue clay, the
new system produced shear wave velocities that
were essentially the same as those obtained use a
multi-component system, and using the
interpretation software developed with the new
system, the shear wave velocity error between the
two conventional signal interpretation methods was
less than 4%.
The combination of the simplicity and lower cost
of this new system compared to traditional systems
increases the potential for wider use of bender
elements for testing in the educational, research and
commercial testing lab environments. It also makes
this testing capability more portable for field use.


The work described in this paper was supported by

the National Science Foundation under Grant No.
0530151. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or
recommendations expressed in this material are
those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect
the views of the National Science Foundation. The
authors appreciate the support provided by this