Experimental investigation of microstructural changes in soils eroded by suffusion using X-ray tomography


Internal erosion is a complex phenomenon which represents one of the main risks to the safety of earthen hydraulic structures such as embankment dams, dikes or levees. Its occurrence may cause instability and failure of these structures with consequences that can be dramatic. The specific mode of erosion by suffusion is the one characterized by seepage flow-induced erosion, and the subsequent migration of the finest soil particles through the surrounding soil matrix mostly constituted of large grains. Such a phenomenon can lead to a modification of the initial microstructure and, hence, to a change in the physical, hydraulic and mechanical properties of the soil. A direct comparison of the mechanical behaviour of soil before and after erosion is often used to investigate the impact of internal erosion on soil strength (shear strength at peak and critical state) using triaxial tests. However, the obtained results are somehow contradictory, as for instance in Chang’s study (Chang and Zhang in Geotech Test J 34(6):579–589, 2011), where it is concluded that the drained strength of eroded soil decreases compared to non-eroded soil, while both Xiao and Shwiyhat (Geotech Test J 35(6):890–900, 2012) and Ke and Takahashi (Geotech Test J 37(2):347–364, 2014) have come to the opposite conclusion. A plausible explanation of these contradictions might be attributed to the rather heterogeneous nature of the suffusion process and to the way the coarse and fine grains are rearranged afterwards leading to a heterogeneous soil structure, a point that, for now, is not taken into account, nor even mentioned, in the existing analyses. In the present study, X-ray computed tomography (X-ray CT) is used to follow the microstructure evolution of a granular soil during a suffusion test, and, therefore, to capture the induced microstructural changes. The images obtained from X-ray CT reveal indeed that fine particles erosion is obviously not homogeneous, highlighting the existence of preferential flow paths that lead to a heterogeneous sample in terms of fine particles, void ratio and inter-granular void ratio distribution.

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A funding provided by Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region is gratefully acknowledged as well as a fruitful partnership with the engineering company SAFEGE. The support of Grenoble Alpes University through the project ERODE (AGIR program) is also acknowledged. We thank P. Charrier and R. Aboul Hosn from Laboratoire 3SR, L.-H. Luu and A. Wautier from Irstea for the help provided during the realization of the tests presented in this paper. We also would like to thank Professors D. Marot and Y. Khidas for their fruitful discussions.

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Correspondence to Nadia Benahmed.

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Nguyen, C.D., Benahmed, N., Andò, E. et al. Experimental investigation of microstructural changes in soils eroded by suffusion using X-ray tomography. Acta Geotech. 14, 749–765 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11440-019-00787-w

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  • Heterogeneity
  • Internal erosion
  • Microstructure
  • Suffusion
  • X-ray computed tomography