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Soil Behaviour at Small Strains: Part 1

11. Strain levels and soil behaviour

Soils shear stress-strain relationships

exhibit many typologies. For example,
some of them are ductile with
continuing strain-hardening, and
some of them are brittle with
significant post-peak strain-softening.
The objective of Week 8-13 is to
understand what sort of soil
behaviour we should expect from
a given soil at a given condition, and
consider what impact the observed
features have on engineering problems.


In doing so, it is convenient to look at

soil behaviour at different strain levels.
This will allow us to focus on
stiffness at small strains, yield
characteristics at medium strains
and strength at large strains.

Large strain
Small strain

This view is applicable in principle for

compression behaviour that we have
studied last week. The only difference
is that we normally do not invoke a
notion of strength in compression.

Medium strain


12. Small-strain stiffness and non-linearity

12-1. Definitions of soil stiffness

- Tangent stiffness (Gtan, Etan , etc.)

- Secant stiffness (Gsec, Esec , etc.)
- Initial (elastic) stiffness (G0, E0 , etc.)
(Equivalent to tangent stiffness at
very small strains)
Upon unloading and reloading,
elastic stiffness is normally
observed (but not necessarily
identical to the initial stiffness).





Normally, soils stiffness is largest

at very small strains, exhibiting
gradual degradation as the strain
becomes larger (due to plastic


How small is small? There is no

formal definition or consensus on
small strain, but when we say
small strains, usually we talk about
strains smaller than order of 10-4
(imagine, 1 m over 10 mm).

Up to order of
(0.01% strain)


12-2. Some history: Background to recognition of small-strain stiffness

Importance of the stiffness non-linearity at small strains started to be recognised mainly
after the 1970s. This development had two technical factors in its background;
sophistication in laboratory tools and the advent of personal computers. New laboratory
tools allowed resolving ever smaller strains with higher accuracy. The computer allowed
non-linear numerical analyses, which provided a way to utilise the new laboratory findings
on small-strain stiffness for practical problems. Without PCs, prediction needs to be based
on analytical solutions, which normally exist for very simple, linearly elastic stress-strain
relationships. So in many senses, general recognition of the stiffness non-linearity at small
strains coincided with the turning point of soil mechanics from the classical era to the

12-3. Testing techniques for measuring small-strain stiffness

(i) Laboratory: Static tests
Triaxial apparatus with local instrumentation
is most commonly used for both research
and practice. Hollow cylinder apparatus and
plane strain apparatus are also used, but
mainly for research purposes. Here we
limit the scope to triaxial apparatus.
However, the principle itself of local
instrumentation is same in any apparatus.

Load cell

Suction cap

Bender element
(also in other side
of soil specimen)

Mid-height PWP
Radial belt

Global instrumentation is erroneous due to

- Bedding errors
- Non-parallel ends
- Load cell and system compliance

Soil specimen


Porous stone

Tie rod


Perspex wall


Local instrumentation is capable of avoiding

these errors, providing more accurate
strain and hence stiffness measurement.



Ram pressure chamber

filled with oil

To oil/air interface
or CRS-pump

Example of triaxial apparatus with

local instrumentation (Nishimura, 2006)

Why not abolish all global instrumentation

and just use local one then? It is easier said
than done; local transducers are expensive
and requires expertise in handling.

d external

From external (global) instrumentation:

axial_external =

d external



Load cell



From internal (local) instrumentation:

axial_internal =

d internal
H 0



H0 H
d internal

Examples of local transducers

These devices have very high resolutions in displacement measurement. Consider how
high the resolution needs to be to measure, say, Youngs modulus for strain of 10-5

Local Displacement Transducer

(LDT; Goto et al., 1991)

Linear Variable Differential Transformer

(LVDT) for axial displacement
(Cuccovillo&Coop, 1997)

Axial displacement transducer using

inclinometer (Burland & Symes, 1982)

LVDT for radial displacement

(Drawing provided by
Prof. Matthew Coop)

Example of measurements
Note how different the magnitudes of stiffness are when measured externally and internally.

Triaxial compression on soft mudstone (Goto et al., 1991)

This is a typical result; you can find numerous similar comparisons in literature for sands,
silts, soft clays, etc. However, the error involved in global measurement of strains is more
significant for stiffer soils. The same problems of bedding and system compliance are
encountered in oedometer tests too.

Another example: Lightly over-consolidated North Sea Clay

(Jardine et al., 1984)

(ii) Laboratory: Dynamic tests

Most of the dynamic tests are based on elastic or visco-elastic wave theory. The magnitude
of strain is associated to the magnitude of oscillation amplitude. The strain levels involved
are normally very small (<10-5), in many cases small enough to regard the obtained
stiffness as the initial elastic stiffness.

One dimensional wave equation is

2u G 2u 3u
t 2 x 2 x 2 t

u (x)

where G is the shear modulus, m the viscosity

and r the mass density of soil. If the viscosity
is disregarded,
2 u
= Vs
t 2
x 2

Case of one-dimensional shear wave

Where Vs = G / is the shear wave velocity.

Bender elements

Bender element tests:


A bender element is made up of piezo-ceramic

semiconductors. It generates shear waves when
energised, and conversely, it sends electric signals
when receiving shear waves. So by installing
a couple of them as transmitter and receiver,
and measuring the travel time between a given
distance, Vs and then G can be calculated.

v (or z)

h (or r)

TE4: After consolidation
f = 9 kHz, vh-direction
Amplitude of signals in arbitrary units

A caution is required; soil stiffness

is anisotropic (the topic of next
week), and you need to know
which shear modulus you are
measuring; Gvh Ghv or Ghh?





of signal

First arrival
t = 0.514 mSec

Example of London Clay (Nishimura, 2006)




Time [mSec]

Resonant Column test

In contrast to bender element tests, in which typically a pulse wave is transmitted to monitor
its velocity, a sample is put in steady state oscillations in resonant column tests. By
gradually changing the input frequency at a constant input force (or torque) amplitude, the
frequency at which the oscillation becomes maximum is sought (i.e. the resonance
frequency is sought). From the resonance frequency, the samples stiffness is obtained.
If the oscillation is compression extension, E is obtained (E or E?)
If the oscillation is cyclic torsional, G is obtained.
The resonant column apparatus is
normally purpose-built, unlike
auxiliary tools such as bender elements.
This poses some inconveniences.
However, it has a big advantage; by
changing the input force, the oscillation
amplitude (hence strain amplitude) can
be changed. This is a useful feature for
estabilishing G curves over a wider
strain range.






(a) Fixed-free

(b) Fixed-base-spring top


(c) Free-free

Various types of resonant column

Shear modulus measured in crag and Tertiary soils

(LC: London Clay, TC: Thanet Sand; Hight et al., 1997)

(iii) Field
Shear wave velocity measurement: Cross-hole and down-hole methods
The principle of these field methods is same as that of bender element tests. A receiver
(and transmitter in down-hole methods) is placed inside a borehole, or if the soil is soft, it
may be installed in a penetration cone (seismic cone penetration test; SCPT).
These method measures shear wave
velocity, which is a body wave. There
are also techniques which use
surface wave (Reighley wave).

Making waves above a seismic cone

Cross-hole measurement
(Hight et al., 1997)

Down-hole measurement
(Hight et al., 1997)

Example of comparison between different method:

Gvh [MPa]



Down-hole (BH407, North)*
Down-hole (BH407, East)*
Resonant column (rot. core)
Bender element
Resonant column
(range for blocks)
*Shear wave was transmitted
from two sides of borehole




Elevation [m OD]

Depth below GL [m]





Lithological unit: A3

Shear modulus Gvh of natural London Clay measured

by different laboratory and field methods (Nishimura, 2006)

In old days, the stiffness moduli measured in dynamic and static tests used to be
considered two fundamentally different things due to the strain-rate effects, because the
dynamic moduli were always far larger than the static ones. After it was found that the
static moduli had been underestimated by global measurement, the agreement of the
moduli between dynamic and static tests has been seen (Tatsuoka & Shibuya, 1991).
One problem solved?

12-4. Importance of small-strain stiffness non-linearity: Case studies

(i) Excavation: Simpson et al. (1979)
One of the early examples of geotechnical non-linear finite element analysis is on
construction of an underground car park in front of the Palace of Westminster in the 1970s.

To avoid affecting the historic building,

the ground deformation caused by
the excavation needed to be predicted
with high accuracy.
A Class A prediction had been given
by elastic analysis by Ward and
Burland (1973). The problem was
revisited by Simpson et al. (1979)
by non-linear analysis.

Palace of Westminster with Big Ben Clock Tower



(Continued; Simpson et al., 1979)

The non-linear analysis was capable of

simulating the observed ground movements
with good accuracy.
An interesting episode is that the linear elastic
and non-linear analyses predicted the towers
leaning towards opposite directions.

Modelling of stress-strain relationships

Predicted ground movements


(ii) Shallow foundation: Jardine et al. (1995)

Experiments at Bothkennar site, Scotland
Loading on a 2.4m x 2.4m footing on soft silty clay.
Analysis with a non-linear model predicted better the observed settlement than with linear
elasticity. The elastic analysis predicts that the influence of the footing settlements reaches
very far. In reality, it does not, as the non-linear analysis indicates.

Testing pad


Predicting and observed settlements


(iii) Shallow - deep foundation: Izumi et al. (1997)

Rainbow Bridge, Tokyo
(Construction work: 1987-1993)
140,000 tf anchorages built on Tertiary

(Google 2011)



(Continued: Izumi et al., 1997)

Proper consideration of stress-strain non-linearity at small strains led to significant
improvement in settlement prediction.
Note how conventional testing methods
underestimating the small-strain stiffness
led to over-estimation of the settlement.

3-D FEM mesh

Non-linear stiffness

Settlement: Predictions and observations

Simulation cases


(iv) Tunnelling: Addenbrooke et al. (1997)

Jubilee Line Extension Project, London
Prediction of settlement troughs with non-linear numerical models

Jubilee Line (Grey-coloured)


Model L4&J4: Non-linear models

fitted to locally instrumented triaxial
extension tests

Stiffness non-linearity from experiments and models


(Continued; Addenbrooke et al., 1997)

Linear elasticity is useless in predicting the settlement trough, which is deeper and
narrower than linear elasticity predicts.
However, even the non-linear stress-strain models do not do a perfect job. Research is
going on to see any other factor is being missed, such as anisotropy and the influence of
loading histories.

Settlement trough


2D FEM mesh

Settlement at the ground surface due to excavation of first (west-bound) tunnel



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