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Soil Composition & Classification


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Soil Composition
Soil is a particulate material that consists of individual particles assembled together
and the engineering properties of soil rely on the interaction among these particles.
A soil consists of rock particles of different sizes and shapes and these are referred to
as solids. The spaces between the solid particles are known as voids, or pores. These
voids can contain air, water or both. If the voids contain only air, the soil is called dry
soil, whereas if voids contain only water, the soil is called saturated soil. Figure 1
shows the three phases of a soil including the solids, water and air.
If the voids are completely full of water, the soil is said to be saturated. If, on the
other hand, there is some air in the voids, the soil is referred to as unsaturated or
partially saturated.
Figure 1: Soil components including solids and voids
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Phase Relationships
In order to understand the engineering properties of a soil, the volumes and
weights of the main three phases of soil should be quantified. The soil three
phases can be schematically represented as shown in Figure 2, which is known as
the phase diagram.
Air
Water
Solids
Weight (or mass) Volume
Wa = 0
W
w
W
s
W
t
V
a
V
w
V
v
V
s
V
t
Where;
W
a
, W
w
, W
s
= weights of air, water and solids, respectively;
V
a
, V
w
, V
s
= volumes of air, water and solids, respectively;
W
t
, V
t
= total weight of soil, total volume of soil; and
V
v
= volume of voids.
Figure 2: The phase diagram of soil
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Basic Definitions
Geotechnical engineers usually need to relate several volume-weight parameters
of the soil components shown previously in Figure 2 to obtain important
information on the composition of a particular soil. The basic definitions needed
are explained below.
Moisture Content: is the weight of water which can be removed from the soil, by
drying to a constant mass at 105
o
C, expressed as a percentage of the dry weight,
as follows:
100 (%) =
s
w
c
W
W
m
(1)
Degree of Saturation: is the volume of water in the voids, expressed as a
percentage of the total volume of voids, as follows:
(2)
100 (%) =
v
w
V
V
S
Porosity: is the ratio of the volume of voids (containing air and/or water) in a soil
to the total volume of soil, as follows:
(3)
100 (%) =
t
v
V
V
n
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Bulk Unit Weight or Total Unit Weight: is the total weight of soil (including
solid particles and any contained water) to the total volume of soil, as follows:
Dry Unit Weight: is the weight of dry soil to the total volume of soil, as follows:
Saturated Unit Weight,
s
is the total unit weight,
t
, when soil is fully saturated
under the ground water table.
t
t
t
V
W
=
(4)
t
s
d
V
W
=
(5)
Unit of Water,
w
= 9.81 kN/m
3
(6)
The dry unit weight is also related to the total unit weight and moisture content
as follows:
(7)
c
t
d
m +
=
1

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Void Ratio: is the ratio of the volume of voids (containing air and/or water) in a
soil to the volume of solids, as follows:
(8)
s
v
V
V
e =
Air Voids (content): is the amount of air in a soil mass, as follows:
(9)
100 (%) =
t
a
v
V
V
A
Specific Gravity: is the ratio of the density of soil grains (solids) to the density of
water. It tells us how many times the soil grains are heavier than water, and it can
be calculated as follows:
(10)
w s
s
w
s
s
V
W
G

=
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If we know any three of the previous properties, we can evaluate the other ones
by applying the equations derived from the phase relationships. The Australian
Standards Methods of Testing Soils for Engineering Purposes (AS 1289) detail a
large number of laboratory and field procedures for measuring all the previous
parameters. Of these parameters, it is only necessary to measure the moisture
content, bulk unit weight (or dry unit weight) and the specific gravity. The
section that follows outlines these tests.
Moisture Content is determined by taking a representative sample of the soil and
weighing it, giving W
t
. The sample is then placed overnight in a constant
temperature oven set at 105
o
C, or for a short time in a microwave oven, and
then re-weighed, giving the weight of solids, W
s
. The weight of water is
determined by subtracting W
s
from W
t
. The moisture content, m
c
, can then be
calculated using Equation (1).
Bulk Unit Weight is determined by taking a representative sample of the soil and
weighing it, giving W
t
. The volume, V
t
, of the sample can be measured in a
number of ways. One technique is by the sand replacement method, in which an
excavated soil is replaced with sand of known unit weight. Once W
t
and V
t
are
known, can be calculated using Equation (4).
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Dry Unit Weight is determined in much the same way as the bulk unit weight,
except that the sample is placed in an oven, in a manner similar to that for the
measurement of the moisture content. The sample is weighed on removal from
the oven yielding W
s
. The volume, V
t
, of the sample can be measured using the
sand replacement method. Once W
s
and V
t
are known,
d
can be calculated using
Equation (5).
Specific Gravity is determined using a simple apparatus called a pycnometer.
Detailed description of the test procedure can be found the laboratory manual. In
this test, a known weight of oven-dried soil, W
s
, is immersed in water contained
in special glass jar, giving V
s
. G
s
can then be evaluated using Equation (10).
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Worked Example (1)
A cylindrical sample of moist clay has a diameter of 38 mm, height of 76 mm and
mass of 174.2 gm. The sample was kept in the oven at 105
o
C for about 24 hours
and the clay mass was reduced to 148.4 gm. The specific gravity of this clay is 2.7.
Determine the bulk unit weight, dry unit weight, water content, degree of saturation
and void ratio. [Answer:
t
= 19.82 kN/m
3
;
d
= 16.89 kN/m
3
; m
c
= 17.4%; S = 82.4%; e = 0.57]
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Soil Classification
Soils can behave differently depending on their geotechnical properties and
classification. Soils can be classified into two main types: coarse grained soils
and fine grained soils.
Coarse grained soils (also called granular soils) are those where the grains are
larger than 0.075 mm, and their engineering behaviour is mainly governed by the
grain size, density of packing, shape and distribution of solid particles.
Fine grained soils are those where the grains are smaller than 0.075 mm, and their
behaviour is greatly influenced by the mineralogy (minerals present in the soil
mass) and water content. The borderline between the coarse and fine grained soils
is 0.075 mm, which is the smallest size one can distinguish with the naked eye.
Based on grain sizes, the Australian Standards AS 1726 groups soils into clays
(<0.002 mm), silts (0.002-0.075 mm), sands (0.075-2.36 mm), gravels (2.36-63
mm), cobbles (63-200 mm) and boulders (>200 mm). The relative proportions of
each group within a soil mass significantly influence the engineering behaviour of
soil, and the two main tools that enable the geotechnical engineer to classify soils
are the grain size distribution and Atterberg limits, as will be explained later.
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Grain Size Distribution
The grain size distribution is a graphical plot of the cumulative percentage by
weight below any nominated size. It is obtained by means of two tests: sieve
analysis for coarse grained soils and hydrometer analysis for fine grained soils.
Sieve Analysis: is carried out on soil particles less than 0.075 mm using a standard
particle size distribution test, and detailed description of the test can be found in
the laboratory manual. The test involves mechanically shaking an oven-dried soil
through a series of woven-wire square-mesh sieves with successively smaller
openings (Figure 3). Since the total mass of the sample is known, the percentage
retained or passing each sieve can be determined by weighing the amount of soil
retained on each sieve after shaking. The grain size distribution can then be
plotted on a logarithmic graph, as shown in Figure 5.
Hydrometer Analysis: since it is not practical to manufacture sieves that are
smaller than 0.075 mm in size, thus, the hydrometer test (Figure 4) is used to
determine the grain size distribution of fine grained soils. Detailed procedures of
the test can be found in the laboratory manual. This test relies on sedimentation
(the rate at which particles settle) and Stokes law. Stokes law states that particles
in a suspension settle at a rate varies with their size, consequently, it is possible to
calculate the size of particles that have settled a known distance in a suspension at
any time from the beginning of sedimentation. The obtained grain size
distribution can then be plotted on the logarithmic graph, as shown in Figure 5.
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It should be noted that very often a soil contains both coarse and fine grains and it
is necessary to do both sieve and hydrometer analyses to obtain the complete grain
size distribution (see for example Figure 5).
Figure 3: Sieve analysis test Figure 4: Hydrometer test
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Figure 5: Typical grain size distribution curve
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100
Particle size (mm)
%

P
a
s
s
i
n
g
clay cobbles
silt sand
gravel
fine medium coarse fine medium coarse fine medium coarse
0.002 0.075 2.36 63.0 0.006 0.02 0.2 0.6 6.0 20.0
Hydrometer test Sieve test
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A soil is known to be well-graded when a wide range of particle sizes is present
in which smaller grains fill the voids created by larger grains thus producing a
dense packing. The soil that is not well graded is poorly-graded in which there
is a deficiency or an excess of a certain particle size. Uniformsoils and gap-
graded soils are special cases of poorly graded soils. A uniform soil is the one
where all grains are about the same size, and a gap-graded soil is the one that has
a range of grain size is absent from the soil mass. Typical examples of different
grain size distribution curves are shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6: Typical grain size distributions
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100
Particle size (mm)
%

P
a
s
s
i
n
g
Uniform
Gap graded
Well graded
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The grain size distribution curve can be described through two simple
coefficients, including the coefficient of uniformity, C
u
, and coefficient of
curvature, C
c
, which are calculated as follows:
10
60
D
D
C
u
=
Coefficient of Uniformity,
60 10
2
30
) (
D D
D
C
c
=
Coefficient of Curvature,
where; D
10
, D
30
and D
60
are the grain diameters (in mm) corresponding to 10%,
30% and 60%, respectively, soil passing.
A sand is well graded if C
u
> 6 and C
c
= 13, whereas a gravel is well graded if C
u
> 4 and C
c
=13. For the grain size distribution curve shown earlier in Figure 5,
D
10
= 0.01 mm, D
30
= 0.075 mm, D
60
= 0.2 mm, then C
u
= 20 and C
c
= 2.8.
Therefore, it is a well graded soil. It can also be seen that this soil contains 69%
sand, 7% gravel and 24% fines.
(11)
(12)
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Worked Example (2)
The results of a sieve analysis for a dry soil are given in the table below. Plot the
grain size distribution curve and calculate C
u
and C
c
, and describe the soil
grading. [Answer: C
u
= 3.5 , C
c
= 1.9; poorly graded]
Sieve size (mm) Mass Retained (gm)
4.75 0.0
2.36 2.6
1.18 12.5
0.6 57.7
0.425 62
0.3 34.2
0.15 31.4
0.075 13.1
Pan 3.9
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Sieve size
(mm)
Mass Retained
(gm)
% Retained % Cumulative
Retained
% Cumulative
Passing
4.75 0.0 0.0 0.0 100
2.36 2.6 1.2 1.2 98.8
1.18 12.5 5.8 7.0 93.0
0.6 57.7 26.5 33.5 66.5
0.425 62 28.5 62.0 38.0
0.3 34.2 15.7 77.7 22.3
0.15 31.4 14.4 92.1 7.9
0.075 13.1 6.0 98.1 1.9
Pan 3.9 1.8 100 0.0
Total = 217.4 gm
Calculation of worked example (2)
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0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100
Particle size (mm)
%

P
a
s
s
i
n
g
clay cobbles
silt sand
gravel
fine medium coarse fine medium coarse fine medium coarse
0.002 0.075 2.36 63.0 0.006 0.02 0.2 0.6 6.0 20.0
Grain size distribution of worked example (2)
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Atterberg Limits
The consistency (degree of firmness, i.e. soft, firm, stiff) of fine grained soils
relies on the water content of soil. As the water content is increased from zero,
soil consistency varies from the solid state (when dry) to the semisolid, plastic
and liquid states, as shown in Figure 7. Atterberg limits are the border line water
contents between such states. These border line water contents are termed the
liquid limit, plastic limit and shrinkage limit, which will be defined next.
Atterberg limits are very valuable in soil classification
Figure 7: Soil consistency and Atterberg limits
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Liquid Limit (LL or w
L
): is the water content over which the soil behaves like a viscous
mud, flowing under its own weight and having a very little strength. It is the transition
water content between the plastic and liquid states. The liquid limit is determined by either
one of two widely accepted laboratory test methods: Casagrande device or fall-cone
penetrometer.
Casagrande test involves taking approximately 250 gm of soil that passes the 0.425 mm
sieve and curing it overnight in water. The cured soil is then thoroughly mixed and a
portion is placed in the Casagrande liquid device, as shown in Figure 8(a). The device
consists of a brass cup which is connected to a handle and cranking mechanism so that
when the handle is rotated, the cup is lifted 10 mm and falls to the hard rubber base.
Casagrande defined the liquid limit as the moisture content at which a standard groove cut
in the remoulded soil sample by a grooving tool (Figure 8a) will close over a distance of 13
mm at 25 blows of the liquid limit device. In practice, it is difficult to add the exact water
necessary to achieve this, however, Casagrande found that one could plot the moisture
content and the blow counts for a number of tests (about four), and thus plot a curve, as
shown in Figure 8(b), from which the liquid limit can be obtained.
The fall-cone penetrometer, on the other hand, consists of a 30
o
stainless steel cone, 35 mm
long, having a mass of 80 gm (Figure 9a). The soil is prepared as above and once cured, a
cylindrical metal cup, 55 mm internal diameter and 40 mm deep, is filled and levelled with
the soil sample. The cone is lowered so that it just touches the surface of the soil in the cup
and the cone is then released. The depth of penetration is measured and the test repeated at
least four times. A curve (see Figure 9b) is obtained by plotting the cone penetration
against moisture content. The liquid limit is the moisture content at which the cone
penetrates the soil sample by 20 mm.
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55
60
65
70
75
10 15 20 25 30 35 40
Number of blows
M
o
i
s
t
u
r
e

c
o
n
t
e
n
t

(
%
)
w
L
Figure 8: Determination of liquid limit by the Casagrande method device
(a) Casagrande liquid limit device
(b) Casagrande liquid limit curve
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Figure 9: Determination of liquid limit by the fall-cone penetrometer
(a) Fall-cone penetrometer
(b) Fall-cone liquid limit curve
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Plastic Limit (PL or w
p
): is the lowest water content at which the soil exhibits
plastic behaviour. It is the transition water content between the semi-solid and
plastic states. The plastic limit is determined by a test that involves preparing and
curing a sample of soil in the same way as for the liquid limit test. Portions of the
soil are rolled into threads on a glass plate. The plastic limit is the moisture
content at which the threads of the soil crumble at a diameter of 3mm, as shown
in Figure 10. If the threads can be rolled to diameters less than 3 mm before
crumbling, the soil is too wet, and conversely, if the threads crumble before 3
mm, the soil is too dry. This test requires some experience before consistent
results can be obtained.
Figure 10: Determination of plastic limit
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Shrinkage Limit (SL or w
s
): is the water content below which the soil will not
shrink when dried. It is the transition water content between the solid and semi-
solid states. The shrinkage limit is determined by a test that involves placing a
soil sample in a shrinkage mould, as shown in Figure 11. The mould is
completely filled with the soil, levelled and placed in an oven until the soil dries.
The length of the sample is measured upon removal from the oven and the
shrinkage limit is obtained as the decrease in length expressed as a percentage of
the original length, as follows:
Figure 11: Determination of shrinkage limit
100 1
|
|
.
|

\
|


=
length initial
drying after length
SL (13)
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Atterberg limits can also be used to obtain some consistency parameters from
which the behaviour fine grained soils can be distinguished. These parameters
include the Plasticity Index (PI), liquidity index (LI) and activity (A).
Plasticity index is the range of water content over which the soil remains plastic
and is calculated as follows:
PL LL PI = (14)
PI
PL m
LI
c

=
Liquidity Index is defined as follows:
where, m
c
is the in-situ moisture content of the soil.
if LI < 0 the soil will behave in a brittle fashion when sheared;
if 0 < LI < 1 the soil will behave plastically when sheared; and
if LI 1 the soil will behave like a viscous mud when sheared.
(15)
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Activity is a good indicator of soil potential to swell-shrink. Higher the activity
means higher the swell-shrink potential. Activity is calculated as follows:
clay of
PI
A

=
%
if A < 0.75 the clay is said to be inactive;
if 0.75 < A < 1.25 the clay is said to be normal; and
if A 1.25 the clay is said to be active.
(16)
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The Unified Soil Classification System
Major soil group Descriptor
Gravel (G)
Sand (S)
Well-graded (W)
Poorly-graded (P)
Silty (M)
Clayey (C)
Silt (M)
Clay (C)
Organic (O)
Low plasticity (L)
High plasticity (H)
Table 1: The USCS soil groups and their descriptors
The Unified Soil Classification System (USCS) is the most widely used soil classification
system in geotechnical engineering. It divides the soils into major groups of coarse-
grained soils (i.e. sand and gravel) and fine-grained soils (i.e. silt, clay and organic), and
describes each soil group using standard descriptors, as shown in Table 1. Each soil is
given a two-letter code, the first letter refers to the major soil group and the second letter
refers to the descriptor. For example, a GWis a well-graded GRAVEL, an SP is a poorly-
graded SAND, a GMis a silty GRAVEL, an SC is a clayey SAND, a ML is a low
plasticity SILT, a CH is a high plasticity CLAY, an OL is a low plasticity ORGANIC soil.
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To use the USCS, follow the following steps:
1. Determine if the soil is highly organic. Such soil is composed primarily of
organic matter, has dark brown/grey or black colour and has a definite rotten
odour especially when wet. If the soil has these characteristics, then classify it
as Peat, Pt. This soil is very problematic because it has high compressibility
and low strength. On the other hand, if the soil is inorganic, then go to Step 2.
2. Conduct a sieve analysis (and a hydrometer test if the soil has fines) to
determine the grain-size distribution curve, and then follow the instructions on
Table 2, with the aid of grading equations and plasticity chart.
3. The U-line of the plasticity chart shown in Table 2 indicates the upper range
of plasticity index and liquid limit coordinates. Where the Atterberg limits of
any soil are found to plot above the U-line, it is suggested that the results be
treated with caution and re-checked.
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Table 2: Unified Soil Classification System
Soil Classification Criteria for assigning Group Symbols and Group Names using laboratory tests
Group Symbol Group Name
C
u
4 and C
c
= 13
c
GW Well-graded Gravel < 5% fines
a

C
u
< 4 or C
c
13
c
GP Poorly-graded Gravel
Fines classify as ML or MH GM Silty Gravel
Gravel
> 50% retained on
2.36 mm sieve size
> 12% fines
a

Fines classify as CL or CH GC Clayey Gravel
C
u
6 and C
c
= 13
c
SW Well-graded Sand < 5% fines
b

C
u
< 6 or C
c
13
c
SP Poorly-graded Sand
Fines classify as ML or MH SM Silty Sand
Coarse Grained Soil
> 50% retained on
0.075 mm sieve size
Sand
< 50% retained on
2.36 mm sieve size
> 12% fines
b

Fines classify as CL or CH GC Clayey Sand
PI plots on or above A- line
d
CL Low plasticity Clay Inorganic
PI plots below A- line
d
ML Low plasticity Silt
PI plots on or above A- line
d
OL Low Plasticity Organic Clay
Silts and Clays
Liquid Limit < 50
Organic
e

PI plots below A- line
d
OL Low Plasticity Organic Silt
PI plots on or above A- line
d
CH High Plasticity Clay Inorganic
PI plots below A- line
d
MH High Plasticity Silt
PI plots on or above A- line
d
OH High Plasticity Organic Clay
Fine Grained Soil
< 50% retained on
0.075 mm sieve size
Silts and Clays
Liquid Limit 50
Organic
e

PI plots below A- line
d
OH High Plasticity Organic Silt
Highly Organic Soil Primarily organic matter, dark in colour and rotten odour Pt Peat
a
Gravel with 512% fines requires dual symbols as follows:
GWGM Well-graded Gravel with Silt
GWGC Well-graded Gravel with Clay
GPGM Poorly-graded Gravel with Silt
GPGC Poorly-graded Gravel with Clay
b
Sand with 512% fines requires dual symbols as follows:
SWSM Well-graded Sand with Silt
SWSC Well-graded Sand with Clay
SPSM Poorly-graded Sand with Silt
SPSC Poorly-graded Sand with Clay

c
10
60
D
D
C
u
= and
60 10
2
30
) (
D D
D
C
c

=

d
CLML Atterberg limits plot in the hatched area, soil is classified as Low Plasticity Clay and Silt

e
75 . 0
) mod (
) . (
<
ified un LL
dried oven LL

P
l
a
s
t
i
c
i
t
y

i
n
d
e
x
,

I
p
Liquid limit, w
l
(%)
P
l
a
s
t
i
c
i
t
y

i
n
d
e
x
,

I
p
Liquid limit, w
l
(%)


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Worked Example (3)
A grain size distribution analysis is carried out on a soil and gave the results shown in the
figure below. Atterberg limits were performed on the fine fraction of the soil and gave a
liquid limit of 30% and plastic limit of 14%. Classify the soil using the USCS and
describe all the necessary steps for your classification. [Answer: GP-GC Poorly graded
GRAVEL with Clay]
0
10
20
30
40
50
60
70
80
90
100
0.001 0.01 0.1 1 10 100
Particle size (mm)
%

P
a
s
s
i
n
g
clay cobbles
silt sand
gravel
fine medium coarse fine medium coarse fine medium coarse
0.002 0.075 2.36 63.0 0.006 0.02 0.2 0.6 6.0 20.0
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 31
Visual Identification of Soils
Test Method Result
Grittiness Rub soil sample between fingers Gritty SILT
Sticky CLAY
Plasticity Try to roll a moist sample to a thread in your hand Crumbles SILT
Rolls to a thread CLAY
Dry strength Allow soil to dry, then crush the dry soil between the fingers Crush to powder SILT
Hard to break CLAY
Shaking Squeeze a moist soil sample between the two palms several times Water film comes to the surface SILT
No moisture film CLAY
A soil in the field can be identified simply by feeling it. Coarse grained soils are
easy to identify due to their large grain size. Fine grained soils are identified on
the basis of the simple tests given in Table 3.
Table 3: Identification of fine grained soils
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Shape of grains in a coarse grained soil is important as it affect the soil strength
and stiffness. Coarse grained soils can be angular, subangular, rounded or
subrounded. When soil grains are angular, there would be interlocking between
the grains and therefore the strength and stiffness of soil increase.
The term Relative Density is commonly used to indicate the in-situ denseness or
looseness of coarse grained soils and it is defined as follows:
(18)
100 (%)
min max
max

=
e e
e e
D
r
where;
D
r
= relative density;
e = in-situ void ratio;
e
max
= maximum void ratio (void ration in the loosest condition); and
e
min
= minimum void ratio (void ratio in the densest condition).
The values of D
r
may vary from 0 for very loose soil to 100% for very dense
soil. AS 1726 recommends the following terms for D
r
.
Coarse Grained Soils Particle Shape & Relative Density
very loose loose
Medium dense dense
very dense
0
15
35
65 85
100
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 33
By using the definition of dry unit weight given in Eqn. (5), D
r
can also be
expressed in terms of the maximum and minimum possible dry unit weights as
follows:
(19)
100 (%)
max
min max
min

d
d
d d
d d
r
D



where;

d
= in-situ dry unit weight (at a void ratio of e);

d-min
= dry unit weight in the loosest condition (at a void ratio of e
max
); and

d-max
= dry unit weight in the densest condition (at a void ratio of e
min
).
It should be noted that the void ratio, e, is related to the dry unit weight using
the following relationship:
(20)
1 =
d
w s
G
e

Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 34


Fine Grained Soil Clay Mineralogy
Soils that consist of silt, sand and gravel are primarily the result of physical and
mild chemical weathering processes and retain much of the chemical structure of
their parent rocks. However, clay experiences extensive chemical weathering
which changes it into a new material that is quite different from the parent rocks.
As a result, the engineering properties of clays are quite different from other
soils.
The chemical weathering process of clays form sheet-like chemical structure of
two types: silica or tetrahedral and alumina or octahedral sheets. The silica
sheets consist of silicon atoms surrounded by four oxygen atoms at the corners
(Figure 12a), and the alumina sheets have aluminium atoms surrounded by six
hydroxyls (OH) atoms (Figure 12b).
The produced sheets are bonded together to form three main groups of clays,
including kaolinites, montmorillonites and illites.
Figure 12: composition of clays: (a) silica sheets; (b) alumina sheets
(a)
(b)
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 35
Kaolinite consists of repeating two-sheets of silica and alumina (Figure 13a). The
chemical bond between these sheets is strong, so kaolinite is a very stable clay
and non-expansive (i.e. they do not exhibit shrinkage or swelling upon the
addition or removal of water). Kaolinite is a weathering product of igneous and
metamorphic rocks by the alteration of feldspars.
Montmorillonite consists of repeating layers of three-sheets; one alumina sheet
surrounded by two silica sheet (Figure 13b). The chemical bond between these
sheets is weak and thus large quantity of water can easily enter between the
sheets and separate them, causing the clay to swell up to several times of its own
volume. Conversely, upon drying, a saturated montmorillonite shrinks and
cracks. This property can be very problematic as it causes extensive distortions
in lightweight structures and highways. Montmorillonite clay is formed by
degradation of some igneous rocks and volcanic ash. Bentonite is a specific form
of clay with a high montmorillonite content.
Illite consists of repeating layers similar to those of the montmorillonite except
that the repeating layers are bonded by potassium ions (Figure 13c) and thus,
illite clay is relatively stable with stronger bond between layers than that of
montmorillonite but weaker than kaolinite. Illite is derived from the weathering
of acidic igneous and metamorphic rocks.
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 36
Si
Al
Si
Al
Si
Al
Si
Al
Water
Si
Al
Si
Si
Al
Si
Si
Al
Si
K ions
Si
Al
Si
Si
Al
Si
Si
Al
Si
Figure 13: Atomic structure of clays: (a) Kaolinite; (b) Montmorillonite; (c) illite
(a) Kaolinite
(b) Montmorillonite
(c) Illite
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 37
Individual clay particles are extremely small and require scanning electron
microscope (SEM). Examples of SEM for some clays are shown in Figure 14,
which indicate that clays have sheet-like shapes that are quite different from the
spherically-shaped particles of coarser soils. Clay particles have two structures:
flocculated and dispersed. (see Figure 15). In the flocculated structure, the soil
particles are edge-to-face and attract each other, whereas in the dispersed
structure, the soil particles are face-to-face and repel each other.
Figure 15: Types of soil structure:
(a) flocculated; (b) dispersed
Figure 14: SEM of some clays
Geotechnical Engineering 268 Dr Mohamed Shahin Curtin University of Technology Page 38
References:
Craig, R. F. (2004). Craigs Soil Mechanics, Spon Press, London.
Das, B. M. (2000). Fundamental of Geotechnical Engineering Brooks/Cole
Thomson Learning, CA.
Holtz, R. D. and Kovacs, W. D. (1981). An Introduction to Geotechnical
Engineering, Prentice-Hall, New Jersey.
Smith, G. N. and Smith, I. G. N. (1988). Elements of Soil Mechanics, Blackwell
Publishing, Oxford.
Whitlow, R. (1995). Basic Soil Mechanics, Longman Science & Technical, NY