Estimating Atterberg limits of soils from hygroscopic water content

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A number of environmental, agronomic and engineering applications require knowledge of the Atterberg limits (liquid limit, LL; plastic limit, PL) and the plasticity index, PI of soils. The tedious and costly nature of standard experimental methods, as well as challenges with measurement repeatability motivated the development of regressions as well as more sophisticated techniques to estimate the Atterberg limits from other properties such as clay content, cation exchange capacity (CEC), and soil specific surface area. The amount of water adsorbed to particle surfaces at relative humidity (RH) < 95% is intimately linked to these soil properties, which suggests that hygroscopic water content (wh) may be a better predictor of the Atterberg limits. The present study (i) proposes regression models that estimate the LL, PL, and PI from wh at different relative humidity values ranging from 10 to 90% and considering water sorption hysteresis, and (ii) compares the performance of the models to other models that comprise clay, silt and organic carbon contents and CEC. For model development, wh was measured by water adsorption and desorption for 168 soil samples that varied widely in terms of geographic origin, clay mineralogy, and soil organic carbon content. The LL and PL were determined with the drop cone penetrometer and rolling device, respectively. Regression models were developed for both sorption directions for nine RH values between 10 and 90%. For 44 independent soil samples, the models estimated LL, PL and PI accurately (e.g., for desorption wh measured at 90% RH, RMSE and r2 values were 6.43% & 0.89; 3.95% & 0.83 and 6.69% & 0.79, respectively). There was no clear effect of sorption direction on the estimation accuracy. The wh determined at higher RH tended to better estimate the Atterberg limits compared to that measured at lower RH. The wh models were superior in estimating LL and PL compared to models that were based on clay content and organic carbon or CEC. For the PI, the models based on CEC performed slightly better than the wh models. Thus, a single measure of wh can provide reliable estimates of the Atterberg limits and PI.

Original languageEnglish
Article number114698
Number of pages9
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021

    Research areas

  • Hysteresis, Liquid limit, Plastic limit, Plasticity index, Water sorption isotherms

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