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Technical Note 557

H. B. Nagaraj1* and A. Sridharan2

An improved ko-stress method of


determining liquid limit of soils

Abstract:  Liquid limit is used extensively by geotechnical engineers to determine the characteristics of cohesive soils and
also aid to have a preliminary assessment of their engineering properties related through plasticity index, consistency index,
liquidity index and shrinkage index. In view of the liquid limit being an important index property which is used in many of the
correlations to predict engineering property, and that the currently used methods having their own limitations, Sridharan et
al (2000) have proposed a new method to determine liquid limit from limiting equilibrium water content under ko-stress. This
paper presents the attempt made to verify the ko-stress to be adopted in determining the liquid limit and also to improve the
test procedure with respect to the dimensions of the rings and associated porous stones to be used This study corroborates
the previous findings that the limiting equilibrium water content for a ko-stress of 0.9 kPa is having a good correlation with the
liquid limit obtained from cone penetration method. It is hoped that the method would gain universal acceptance to determine
liquid limit of soils due to its several advantages as compared to the existing popular methods.

Keywords:  Foundations, geotechnical engineering, index property, compressibility, roads and highways.

Introduction Among the consistency limits, the liquid limit has found
to be an important parameter used in many correlations with
The index tests namely the Atterberg limits form the most the engineering properties. In the recent past various attempts
important inferential soil tests with very wide universal have been made to correlate the consistency limits, especially
acceptance. They are extensively used in geotechnical engi- the liquid limit with various soil properties or parameters
neering practice. These tests are relatively simple to perform like surface area & cation exchange capacity (Farrar and
and have provided a basis for explaining most engineering Coleman 1967, Ohtsubo et al. 1983), the mineralogy and
properties in geotechnical engineering. The use of simple soil geological history (through “activity”) (Seed et al.1964a,
test procedures aid to have a preliminary assessment of engi- 1964b), swelling behaviour (Seed et al. 1962, Ranganatham
neering properties of fine-grained soils. This has been made and Satyanarayna 1965, Vijayavergiya and Ghazally 1973,
possible by means of several correlations developed between Srinivasa Murthy and Nagaraj 1987), the compression index
the Atterberg limits (or consistency limits) and engineering (Skempton 1944, Nishida 1956, Wroth and Wood 1978,
properties. The Atterberg limits were originally devised to Koppula 1981, Nagaraj and Srinivasa Murthy 1983 and
help classify soils and as such, a high degree of accuracy was 1986, Nagaraj et al. 1995, and many others), the coefficient
not necessary. However, when these parameters are used of consolidation (Carrier 1985, Narasimha Raju et al. 1995),
in conjunction with correlations, the degree of reliability of shear strength (Wroth and Wood 1978), and to use these cor-
such correlations increases only when the consistency limits relations for the purposes of checking new data/or to predict
are determined fairly accurately through standardized proce- soil behavior for design work. Besides the consistency limits,
dures having universal acceptance. plasticity index, liquidity index, and consistency index have
also been used to correlate with the engineering properties.
These indices are different forms of the consistency limits.
*Corresponding Author
Several attempts have been made in the past to use alter-
Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering, Department of Civil Engineering,
1
nate test methods to determine the liquid limit of soil like
BMS College of Engineering, Bangalore 560 019, India. email: hbnraj@
gmail.com, Fax: 0091 80 26614357, Phone: 0091 80 26622130-35
the dye absorption method (Ramachandran et al, 1963); the
Extn. 4083, Mobile: 0091 98805 07537 vane shear method (Darienzo and Vey 1955); soil moisture
Professor Emeritus, Department of Civil Engineering, Indian Institute of
2

Science, Bangalore 560 012, India. email: sridharanasuri@yahoo.com

International Journal of Geotechnical Engineering (2010) 4: (557-563) J. Ross Publishing, Inc. © 2010
DOI 10.3328/IJGE.2010.04.04.557-563
558  International Journal of Geotechnical Engineering

tension method (Russel and Mickle 1970) and equilibrium corresponding pressure and initial water content required
sediment volume method (Prakash and Sridharan, 2002) to to reach this equilibrium condition can be determined and
name a few. compared for different soils. In other words, this gives the
Currently two methods are popular in practice for the water holding capacity of the soils under very low ko stress
determination of the liquid limit of a fine-grained soil. They condition. On this premise experiments were conducted
are: using the conventional oedometer rings to obtain the pres-
sure required for a saturated slurry sample to reach an equi-
(i) The percussion cup method and ii) The cone pen-
librium water content equal to that of the liquid limit water
etration method.
content.
Both these methods have limitations and practical dif- It is also well recognized that in a consolidation test, the
ficulties which have been discussed extensively by various void ratio-logarithm of pressure relationship depends on
researchers (Casagrande, 1958; Sherwood and Ryley, 1970; the water content at which the consolidation test is started
Sridharan and Prakash, 2000; Prakash and Sridharan, 2006). (Leonards and Ramiah 1959). Similarly, the equilibrium
To over come the shortcomings of these two popular meth- water content reached under any stress will also depend
ods of determining liquid limit, recently Sridharan et al., on the initial water content. Sridharan and Prakash (1997)
(2000) have suggested a test procedure to determine liquid observed a similar behavior in sedimentation tests. A straight
limit of soils namely liquid limit by equilibrium water con- line extension of these equilibrium points are obtained by
tent under ko stress, which has least limitations with the test plotting initial water content (wi) versus equilibrium water
procedures and devoid of personal errors. In this paper the content (we) under a given vertical effective stress to meet
above method of determining liquid limit has been further the wi = we line (45° line), which gives a unique minimum
verified, improved and simplified to be convenient for rou- equilibrium water content, and that can be taken as the liq-
tine testing of soils. uid limit of the soil. In other words, at the liquid limit water
content of a saturated soil sample, it has a unique external
effective vertical stress under ko conditions. This concept is
Basic principles of ko – stress method used to develop a procedure to determine the liquid limit, as
It is widely accepted that the liquid limit test is essentially a explained in the following sections.
measure of the viscous resistance or shear strength of a soil
that is so soft, it approached the liquid state (Casagrande, Scope for Improvement
1932; Sowers et al. 1959). In the percussion cup method,
the impact of soil filled cup on the base induces a dynamic It was felt that the 60 mm diameter rings proposed in the
stress in the soil, which results in shear and the soil flows in test procedure suggested by Sridharan et al., (2000) requires
the sloping walls of the groove. Thus, the force resisting the more laboratory working space and soil for routine testing
deformation of the sides of the groove is the shearing resis- to determine liquid limit. Hence, an attempt is made in this
tance of the soil, and hence, the number of blows required experimental study to improve the test procedure with a
to close the groove of the soil represents a relative indirect reduced dimension of the rings and also verify the appropri-
measure of dynamic shearing resistance of the soil at that ateness of the value of ko stress of 0.9 kPa suggested by them.
moisture content. In a cone penetrometer test, the resistance The same is presented in this technical note.
offered to a static load gives the shearing resistance of the soil
to plastic flow at that moisture content. In case undrained Material and methods
frictional resistance exists, the result becomes erroneous. Five natural soils from various geological locations, cover-
In the conventional methods of liquid limit determina- ing a wide range of liquid limit (40.8 % < wL < 83 %) were
tion which are in popular use, the methods were devised selected for the present study and have been tested for their
based on the small but measurable shear strength at liquid physical properties according to ASTM Standards and the
state of consistency. In a similar way, one can also examine results summarized in Table 1.
the possibility of having a low ko stress at liquid limit. It is The specific gravity of soils used was determined using
well known that in a conventional oedometer test, a saturated a pyconometer (stoppered bottle having a capacity of 50 ml)
soil mass reaches an equilibrium water content following as specified by ASTM Standard Test Method for Specific
any increment in pressure. The equilibrium water content Gravity of Soils (D 854-92, 1995). The specific gravity values
depends upon the level of the pressure and the initial water are an average of three tests; individual determinations dif-
content itself. Thus, it may be stated that if the equilibrium fered from the mean by less than 0.01. The liquid limit of
water content happens to be the liquid limit water, then the the soils was determined by the cone penetration method
An improved ko-stress method of determining liquid limit of soils   559

Table 1.  Physical properties of soil used in the present study


Grain Size distribution
Soil No Soil type Location Gs wL (%) wP (%) IP (%)
Gravel (%) Sand (%) Silt (%) Clay (%)
1 Black cotton soil-1 Davanagere 2.7 40.8 24.6 16.2 0 20 75 5
2 Kaolinite Cannanore 2.65 50.0 36.8 13.5 0 41 40 19
3 Ball clay Cannanore 2.68 69.5 33.5 36.0 0 17 29 54
4 Black cotton soil-2 Mugur 2.71 78.0 57.8 20.2 0 7.1 74.9 18
5 Black cotton soil-3 Gulbarga 2.72 83.0 62.6 20.4 0 7.7 72.3 20

Figure 1.  Diagrammatic sketch of the apparatus used to determine the Liquid Limit of soils by ko - stress method.

as specified by BS: 1377 – part 2, 1990. The liquid limit tests Improved ko - Stress method of liquid limit
were carried out to obtain a minimum of six points for plot- determination
ting the flow curve. The consistency of soil specimen was
adjusted such that the cone penetration ranged between In order to standardize the test procedure with respect to the
15mm and 25mm. The plastic limit of soil specimens were reduced dimensions of the ring, so, as to optimize the labora-
determined by 3mm rolling thread method as outlined in the tory working space and soil required and thus convenient for
ASTM Standard Test Method for Liquid Limit, Plastic limit, routine determination of liquid limit, smaller size rings of 38
and Plasticity Index of Soils (D 4318 – 93, 1995). The plastic mm internal diameter and height of 20 mm were selected.
limit values are an average of 3 trials. The diagrammatic sketch of the test set up used is shown
Grain size analysis was done according to ASTM Test in Fig. 1. The internal diameter of the rings is 38 mm, with
Method for Particle Size Analysis of Soils (D 422-63, 1995) by the size of the bottom and top porous stones as 50 mm and
wet sieving of 300 g of dry soil using a 75µm sieve. The por- 36 mm in diameter respectively. Due to the reduced diam-
tion retained on the 75µm sieve was oven dried and sieved eter of the rings, it was felt necessary to check whether the
using sieves of 4.75 mm, 2.36 mm, 1.18 mm, 600 µm, 425 ko-stress of 0.9 kPa suggested by Sridharan et al., (2000) was
µm, 300 µm, 212 µm, 150 µm and 75 µm sizes. The soil pass- still valid to arrive at the liquid limit of the soil. So, ko-stress
ing 75µm was collected carefully and air-dried, and the grain values around 0.9 kPa, namely 0.7 kPa and 1.1 kPa, in addi-
size distribution analysis was performed by the hydrometer tion to 0.9 kPa were selected in the present study.
method. The results are presented in Table 1.
560  International Journal of Geotechnical Engineering

Figure 2.  Relationship between initial water content and equilibrium Figure 3.  Relationship between initial water content and equilibrium
water content under varying consolidation pressures of 0.7, 0.9, 1.1 kPa water content under varying consolidation pressures of 0.7, 0.9, 1.1
for soil 1. kPa for soil 2.

Testing Program
The selected soils were mixed to water contents to a con-
sistency that soils were nearly flowing. The saturated soil
samples were remoulded in the three rings (inner diameter
38 mm) simultaneously. The rings with sample inside were
placed on saturated porous stones of 50-mm diameter. On
the top of each ring after filling with soil, a filter paper was
placed, over which the selected ko stress of 0.7 kPa, 0.9 kPa
and 1.1 kPa in the form of aluminum loading cap of 34 mm
diameter with porous stone of 36mm diameter was placed.
The mass of the aluminum loading caps was approximately
50 g. On the top of the porous stone and the loading cap a
suitable additional mass was placed in the form of lead shots
to obtain the desired ko-stress of 0.7 kPa (79.4 g), 0.9 kPa
(102.1 g) and 1.1 kPa (124.7 g) respectively. It is to be noted
that the porous stones on saturation absorbed around 2 g of
Figure 4.  Relationship between initial water content and equilibrium
moisture. Hence this was taken into consideration while tak-
water content under varying consolidation pressures of 0.7, 0.9, 1.1
ing the mass of the lead shots. The initial moisture content kPa for soil 3.
of the soil sample was determined separately. The prepared
soils specimens in the rings were kept in a container, with Results and Discussion
sufficient water poured to maintain the saturation of the
sample through the bottom porous stone (Fig.1). The entire Fig. 2 shows a typical plot of the equilibrium water content
assembly was kept in a desiccator containing water at the versus initial water content of soil No.1. It can be observed
bottom to maintain controlled environment conditions. that the equilibrium water content reached for any initial
After 24 hours of equilibration under the ko stress, the equi- water is a function of the vertical consolidation stress (ko
librium water content was determined. Similar testing pro- stress) used. More is the ko stress, more is the water squeezed
cedure was adopted at various initial moisture contents. The out, and hence, lower is the equilibrium water content
samples were tested at four initial moisture contents. reached. The experiment was repeated for different initial
The results of these tests conducted on five soils selected water contents. The points were connected by best-fit line
and used in the present study are presented. and extended backwards to cut the equality line. This is
the water content where in the equilibrium water content
An improved ko-stress method of determining liquid limit of soils   561

Table 2.  Results of equilibrium water content from ko –


stress method under various ko – stresses
wLc wL0.7 wL0.9 wL1.1
Soil No.
(cone method) (0.7 kPa) (0.9 kPa) (1.1 kPa)
1. 40.80 41.4 40.0 38.8
2. 50.00 52.2 50.8 49.2
3. 69.50 72 69.7 68.5
4. 78.00 79.5 77.5 75.5
5. 83.00 84.1 82.8 81.2

Figure 5.  Relationship between initial water content and equilibrium


water content under varying consolidation pressures of 0.7, 0.9, 1.1
kPa for soil 4.

Figure 7.  Relationship between liquid limit by cone penetration method


and ko - Stress method for various values of ko–Stress.

equilibrium water content under ko-stress versus liquid limit


by cone penetration method. Further, observation of Fig.
7 shows that the results are quite consistent for all the five
soils under all the three ko-stresses adopted in this study.
Fig. 8 is a plot of liquid limit by cone penetration method
and ko - Stress method under a ko-stress of 0.9 kPa from the
Figure 6.  Relationship between initial water content and equilibrium results of present study and the literature (Sridharan et al.,
water content under varying consolidation pressures of 0.7, 0.9, 1.1 2000). It can be observed from Fig.8 that, for all the soils the
kPa for soil 5.
equilibrium water content under ko-stress of 0.9 kPa is found
to be close to the liquid limit obtained from cone method. It
is equal to the initial water content. This water content is
can be mentioned here that though there is a reduction in the
defined as the limiting equilibrium water content. This
dimension in the rings used, a ko-stress of 0.9 kPa is found
represents the water holding capacity of the soil under that
to be a suitable vertical consolidation pressure to determine
particular ko-stress. Hence, comparison of this water content
liquid limit from equilibrium water content under ko-stress
could be made with the liquid limit by the cone method.
as suggested earlier by Sridharan et al., (2000).
Similar results were obtained for other soils as shown in
Figs. 3 to 6. The limiting equilibrium water content which is
equal to that of initial water content under any ko-stress for Recommendations
all the soils as obtained from Figs. 2 to 6 is tabulated in Table
2 along with the liquid limit obtained from cone penetration From the results of the above carefully conducted experi-
method. The same results are plotted in Fig. 7 as limiting mental program on five soils selected from various geological
562  International Journal of Geotechnical Engineering

Conclusions
In view of the liquid limit being an important index prop-
erty which is used in many of the correlations to predict
engineering property, and that the currently used methods
having their own limitations, Sridharan et al., (2000) have
proposed a new method to determine liquid limit from equi-
librium water content under ko-stress. In this present work
an attempt has been made to improve the test procedure
with respect to the dimensions of the rings and associated
porous stones to be used and also to verify the ko-stress to be
adopted with the improved ko-stress method to determine
the liquid limit.
From the present study of determining the liquid limit
form equilibrium water content on five soils from various
geological locations, using 38 mm diameter and 20 mm
height rings, with 36 mm of top porous stone and 50 mm
Figure 8.  Relationship between liquid limit by cone penetration method of bottom porous stone, it has been found that the limiting
and ko–Stress method for a ko–Stress of 0.9 kPa from the present and
equilibrium water content for a ko-stress of 0.9 kPa is having
the literature
a good correlation with the liquid limit obtained from cone
penetration method.
locations, the following dimensions of the rings and the value The proposed method has the following advantages:
of ko-stress to be adopted are suggested to determine the
(i) The apparatus is extremely simple and easy to use.
liquid limit from equilibrium water content under ko-stress:
(ii) It is free from operator errors, and
(i) A ring of 38 mm internal diameter and 20 mm (iii) Offers good reproducibility.
height, with bottom and top porous stones of (iv) Possibility of determining the water holding capac-
50 mm and 36 mm diameter respectively to be ity of relatively less plastic soils including fly ash.
adopted.
(ii) A vertical consolidation pressure (ko-stress) of 0.9 It is hoped that the method would gain universal accep-
kPa to be used in the form of saturated porous tance, and adopted as the standard method of determining
stone of 36 mm in diameter at the top and an alu- liquid limit of soils due to its several advantages as compared
minum loading cap. to the existing popular methods.

Limitations Acknowledgements
The proposed test procedure of determining liquid limit has The authors would like to appreciate Hafeez and Vibha for-
the following limitation: mer undergraduate students of B M S college of Engineering
for their active involvement in this experimental program.
(i) The test requires an additional time of 24 hours
as compared to the conventional method of deter-
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