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4th Year (Undergraduate) Geotechnical Engineering Report
University of Johannesburg
11 February 2011

Geotechnical tests and possible
application of results

1. Introduction

There are many different types of soils that can be found in a particular location.
These soils may have different geological and geotechnical characteristics and thus
behave differently in certain situations.

Proper testing is therefore required before simply using any soil for a particular
engineering application. In many cases the engineering application will require the
soil to have a combination of various characteristics. This emphasises the need for
extensive testing to mitigate the possibility of failure in a particular design.

2. Aim

The aim of this project is to classify two different unknown soil samples and
recommend appropriate engineering applications for each, as well as uncover possible
shortcomings for other applications, and recommend possible modes of modification
and improvement of the soil with respect to them.

3. Method of Approach

There are two methods of approach which can be undertaken during a project of this
nature, namely a convergent or a divergent analysis.

A convergent analysis would consist of pre-listing a number of possible uses for a
soil, for example use in an earth dam wall, investigating which soil parameters are
important and finally converging on tests which determine them.

A divergent analysis would consist of starting with the basic tests and relating uses
based on them, then moving onto more complicated ones and doing the same until
finally finding applications for the soil based on the results of the tests.

The approach for this project will be a combination of the two, as a convergent
approach requires a large amount of experience and is focused while a divergent
approach requires very little experience and is very broad. Being final year civil
engineering students allows for selective judgement of appropriate tests with possible
applications in mind, followed by further research and the possible addition of tests to
complete the aim of this project.

An eyeball analysis of the samples will be completed, followed by laboratory testing
and engineering applications based on these. Improvement and modification
recommendations for other less suited applications will be made post-testing as well.

4. Tests and Possible Applications

4.1 Sieve Analysis

The sieve analysis test will produce a grading curve that shows the distribution of the
soil particle sizes from the given sample. An estimation of the quantities of fine,
medium and coarse particles is also found by the sieve analysis. The most important
results from the sieve analysis are determining the coefficients of uniformity and

The coefficient of uniformity (𝐶𝑢 ) relates the quantity of the soil sample that is of the
same particle size. Low 𝐶𝑢 values indicate a steep grading curve from the sieve
analysis which indicates that the soil is poorly graded. The reverse is true for flatter

The coefficient of curvature (𝐶𝑐 ) indicates the spread, across the sieve size range, of
the particle sizes in the sample. Smooth curves fall within one and three and irregular
soils will have 𝐶𝑐 values out of this range.

 To determine the suitability of soil for use as aggregate in concrete
 To aid in classification of soil and associated quality for different uses
 To separate fines for index testing

4.2 Hydrometer analysis

This test method covers the determination of the size distribution of particles smaller
than can be sieved i.e. smaller than 0.075mm in diameter; these are usually silt and
clay particles and may have a profound effect on a soil's behaviour.

 To aid in classification of the soil, by determining the proportion of
clay and silt and hence determine it suitability for different
engineering applications

4.3 Atterberg Limit Tests

The atterberg limit tests include finding the liquid limit, plastic limit, plastic index and
linear shrinkage of the soil sample. These results are important in using the AASHTO
classification for pavement construction and the USCS flow charts for other
construction type that are not specific to pavement construction.

4.3.1 Liquid Limit Tests:
The liquid limit tests indicate the moisture content at which soil turns to a liquid state.
The liquid limit is important as it gives a guideline as to what the allowable moisture
content in the soil can be to prevent failure. It will also indicate if drainage for the
ground is required and whether construction can occur above or below the
groundwater table.

The inter-particle forces are also indicated by the liquid limit tests as soils with lower
inter-particle forces have lower liquid limits as the particles easily break apart in the
presence of water (Das, 2006). An indication of the soils affinity for water is also
attained from the liquid limit test which will indicate how soils, especially clays, will
expand in the presence of water.

4.3.2 Plastic Limit Test:
The plastic limit test gives the moisture content at which the soil goes from a
semisolid state to a plastic state. The plastic limit will also give a good indication of
the clay content of the soil. Higher plastic limits show that the clay content in the soil
is high hence the soil may be problematic to construct upon as clay is an unstable soil.
Essentially, the plastic limit test will give the moisture content at which the soil will
deform plastically.

4.3.3 Linear Shrinkage Test
Soils shrink when drying out from initially being saturated with water. It is necessary
to know how much shrinkage occurs as this may lead to settlement of structures that
are constructed upon the tested soils. This is important when constructing in areas of
varying climates like Johannesburg of late where there has been tremendous
quantities of rain followed by immense heat.

4.3.4 Plastic Index: (not a test)
The plastic index is essentially the liquid limit minus the plastic index. This measures
the range of moisture contents that encompasses the plastic state of the soil

 The index tests are pivotal in predicting a soil’s behaviour when
interacting with water such as swelling (which has great bearing on
foundation design)
 These tests also form the basis of classification with respect to
appropriate engineering application of a soil

4.4 Hydraulic Conductivity tests (Permeability Tests)

The permeability of a soil is the ease in which water can flow through it. There are
two types of tests which may be performed on soils in order to determine their
hydraulic conductivity, namely the Constant Head and Falling Head tests. The
Constant Head Permeability Test is performed on sands since the pore openings are
large resulting in high permeability (k >10-4 cm/s), while the Falling head
Permeability Test is performed on clays which have small pore openings and hence a
low permeability (k <10-4 cm/s)


Constant Head Permeability
 To calculate of seepage through earth dams, under sheet pile walls
 To estimate settlements in foundations and slope stability analysis.

Falling Head Permeability
 To predict settlement in structures
 To recommend methods for lowering the ground water table during
(University of Texas, n.d.)

4.5 Proctor compaction test

The maximum dry density and optimum moisture content can be attained from the
Proctor Compaction Test. The normal dry density of the soil and the relative
compaction levels at various moisture contents can also be attained. The optimum
moisture content is useful when compacting the soil on site so it can provide a stable
base to construct upon.

 To determine the density of a soil when compacted to an optimum

 To determine the suitability of a soil when standards of compaction
are specified in earthwork drawings for the adequate support of

4.6 California bearing ratio (CBR) Test

This test is done to determine the California bearing ratio (CBR) of a soil tested in a
laboratory, with a selected overburden pressure. The CBR is calculated by using a
cylindrical plunger to penetrate a soil at a given rate and then comparing the
relationship between force and penetration into soil, to that of a know material. The
materials is first prepared in moulds to 3 known densities and moisture content, to
assess the materials CBR performance at varying levels of compaction and moisture.

 To evaluate the load-bearing capability of a soil at varying moisture
 To aid in evaluation of soil for use in pavement design

4.7 Direct Shear test (Shear-box)

The direct shear test is the most simple and economic test to determine the shear
strength parameters of a soil and is especially effective in determining the drained
strength of sandy soils. A Mohr-Coulomb diagram and the results from the test can
then be used to determine the effective friction angle (Ф’) and effective cohesion (c’).

 To evaluate slope stability
 To aid in the design of levees, retaining walls and buried structures

4.8 Triaxial Tests

The triaxial test is suitable for all soil types and the result from the test measures the
shear strength of the soil under controlled conditions (Hale and McIver, 1970). From
the shear strength Mohr Circles attained from the test, the stress envelope can be
developed and from that the effective friction angle (Ф’) and effective cohesion (c’)
can be attained.

From the friction angle and cohesion of the soil, the stability of slopes on a larger
scale can be evaluated such as whether the slope will collapse or whether the soil will
support the imposed shear stresses and remain intact. There are three tests that are
required to be carried out to illustrate various scenarios that the soil could experience:

i. Consolidated Undrained
ii. Unconsolidated Undrained
iii. Consolidated Drained

 To evaluate slope stability
 To aid in the design of levees, retaining walls and buried structures

4.9 Oedometer test

The oedometer test predicts the consolidation of the soil. An undisturbed sample is
required which is difficult to attain so general compacted soil will be used from the
sample and tested in the oedometer.

From the oedometer test, the consolidation curve is obtained from which the
preconsolidation stress (𝑃𝑐 ), compression index (𝐶𝑐 ) and re-compression index (𝐶𝑟 ) is
attained. The preconsolidation value will give an indication of the soil’s stress history.
Using either 𝐶𝑐 or 𝐶𝑟 – values, in conjunction with the void ratio, the classification of
compressibility can also be found. (Coduto,1999).

 To predict settlement and determine the state of consolidation in the
 To aid in fill and foundation design
 To determine the behaviour of a soil under loading

5. Other Interesting Tests

Future geotechnical conditions (owing to acid mine water levels and large dolomite
deposits) experienced in South Africa may very well need to utilise these tests,
although apparatus may not be available to conduct them during this project.

5.1 Cyclic Triaxial Test

This test is used to evaluate liquefaction potential and strength of soil under shear
stress representative of those induced by earthquakes(Hale and McIver, 1970)..
Although South African may only experience slight tremors, blasting and
underground cave-ins may cause them more frequently and with greater intensity.

5.2 Pinhole Erosion Test for Dispersive Clays

This test consists of running distilled water under low hydraulic head through a small
diameter boring through the soil specimen, for dispersive clays the hole enlarges
quickly and the through-water becomes cloudy (Hale and McIver, 1970). This test is
interesting as it would highlight the possibility of extreme erosion (as would be due to
heavy rainfalls of late) occurring during an engineering project, along with the
associated negative effects.

5.3 Collapse Test

This test is fairly simple and allows one to recognise a soil that is susceptible to
sudden reduction in volume upon wetting (Day, n.d.). This is of particular importance
during foundation design.

5.4 Swell Tests

Swelling is a prominent feature of clay soils. As water moves between the clay soils,
the clay particles move apart and the soil begins to expand. The swell test is important
in difficult soils where expansion is the natural behaviour of the soil in the presence of
water especially in plastic soils like those with a high montmorillonite content.

The actual swell test can be conducted in n apparatus similar to that of the oedometer
tests using a wet sample. The swelling potential of the soil can then be determined
empirically and correlated to the atterberg limits, although this is not an exact science
and the soils’ behaviour is not exactly predictable.

6. List of Possible Engineering Applications

The following are a few possible applications which the unknown soils may be
suitable for:
 Pavement Design
 Fill
 Retaining Wall Design
 Hydraulic Barriers
 Slope Design
 Foundations
 Buried Structures

(All of which and others will be investigated and elaborated upon in the final report)

7. Possible Future Soil Improvement and Modification

The following are some of the possible soil improvement and modification techniques
which will be investigated after testing has been completed:
 Cement Stabilisation
 Fly-ash Stabilisation
 The use of stone columns
 The use of sand compacted piles
 Piling
 Jet Grouting

(All of which and others will be investigated and elaborated upon in the final report)

8. References

Coduto, D.P. (1999).Geotechnical Engineering principles and practices. New Jersey:
Prentice-Hall Inc.

Das, B.M. (2006). Principles of geotechnical engineering, fifth edition.Ontario:
Thomson Canada limited.

Day, R. W. (n.d.). Foundation engineering handbook: design and construction with
the 2009 international building code, second edition. United States of America:
McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.

Hale, B.N. & McIver, G.P. (1970). Laboratory soil testing. Washington: U.S. Army
Engineer Waterways Experiment Station

University of Texas (n.d.) .Geotechnical laboratory procedure. Arlington: University
of Texas

9. Bibliography

Das,B.M. (2007). Principles of foundation engineering, seventh edition. Cengage

Craig, R.F. (1974).Craig’s soil mechanics.London: Spon press

Moser, A.P. & Folkman, S. (2008). Buried pipe design, third edition. United States of
America: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc.