Soil Mechanics & Foundation Engg.: Clay Mineral, Effective Stress in Soil

By Deepanshu Rastogi|Updated : March 17th, 2021











































Structure of Soil

A soil particle may be a mineral or a rock fragment. A mineral is a chemical compound formed in nature during a geological process, whereas a rock fragment has a combination of one or more minerals. Based on the nature of atoms, minerals are classified as silicates, aluminates, oxides, carbonates and phosphates.

Out of these, silicate minerals are the most important as they influence the properties of clay soils. Different arrangements of atoms in the silicate minerals give rise to different silicate structures.

Basic Structural Units
Soil minerals are formed from two basic structural units: tetrahedral and octahedral. Considering the valencies of the atoms forming the units, it is clear that the units are not electrically neutral and as such do not exist as single units.

The basic units combine to form sheets in which the oxygen or hydroxyl ions are shared among adjacent units. Three types of sheets are thus formed, namely silica sheet, gibbsite sheet and brucite sheet.

Isomorphous substitution is the replacement of the central atom of the tetrahedral or octahedral unit by another atom during the formation of the sheets.

The sheets then combine to form various two-layer or three-layer sheet minerals. As the basic units of clay minerals are sheet-like structures, the particle formed from stacking of the basic units is also plate-like. As a result, the surface area per unit mass becomes very large.

  • A tetrahedral unit consists of a central silicon atom that is surrounded by four oxygen atoms located at the corners of a tetrahedron. A combination of tetrahedrons forms a silica sheet.


  • An octahedral unit consists of a central ion, either aluminium or magnesium, that is surrounded by six hydroxyl ions located at the corners of an octahedron. A combination of aluminium-hydroxyl octahedrons forms a gibbsite sheet, whereas a combination of magnesium-hydroxyl octahedrons forms a brucite sheet.


  • Montmorillonite Mineral 
    The bonding between the three-layer units is by van der Waals forces. This bonding is very weak and water can enter easily. Thus, this mineral can imbibe a large quantity of water causing swelling. During dry weather, there will be shrinkage.
  • Illite Mineral 
    Illite consists of the basic montmorillonite units but are bonded by secondary valence forces and potassium ions, as shown. There is about 20% replacement of aluminium with silicon in the gibbsite sheet due to isomorphous substitution. This mineral is very stable and does not swell or shrink.
  • Kaolinite Mineral
    A basic kaolinite unit is a two-layer unit that is formed by stacking a gibbsite sheet on a silica sheet. These basic units are then stacked one on top of the other to form a lattice of the mineral. The units are held together by hydrogen bonds. The strong bonding does not permit water to enter the lattice. Thus, kaolinite minerals are stable and do not expand under saturation.

    Kaolinite is the most abundant constituent of residual clay deposits.



Effective Stress Principle, Capillarity & Seepage

Stresses in the Ground

Total Stress
When a load is applied to soil, it is carried by the solid grains and the water in the pores. The total vertical stress acting at a point below the ground surface is due to the weight of everything that lies above, including soil, water, and surface loading. Total stress thus increases with depth and with unit weight.

Vertical total stress at depth z, sv = g.Z


Below a water body, the total stress is the sum of the weight of the soil up to the surface and the weight of water above this. sv = g.Z + gw.Zw

The total stress may also be denoted by sz or just sIt varies with changes in water level and with excavation.

Pore Water Pressure
The pressure of water in the pores of the soil is called pore water pressure (u). The magnitude of pore water pressure depends on:

  • the depth below the water table.
  • the conditions of seepage flow.


Under hydrostatic conditions, no water flow takes place, and the pore pressure at a given point is given by 
u = gw.h

where h = depth below water table or overlying water surface

It is convenient to think of pore water pressure as the pressure exerted by a column of water in an imaginary standpipe inserted at the given point.

The natural level of ground water is called the water table or the phreatic surface. Under conditions of no seepage flow, the water table is horizontal. The magnitude of the pore water pressure at the water table is zero. Below the water table, pore water pressures are positive. 

Principle of Effective Stress

The principle of effective stress was enunciated by Karl Terzaghi in the year 1936. This principle is valid only for saturated soils, and consists of two parts:

1. At any point in a soil mass, the effective stress (represented by σ' or s) is related to total stress (s) and pore water pressure (u) as

σ's - u 

Both the total stress and pore water pressure can be measured at any point.

2. All measurable effects of a change of stress, such as compression and a change of shearing resistance, are exclusively due to changes in effective stress.

Compression = f1')
Shear Strength = f2')


In a saturated soil system, as the voids are completely filled with water, the pore water pressure acts equally in all directions.

The effective stress is not the exact contact stress between particles but the distribution of load carried by the soil particles over the area considered. It cannot be measured and can only be computed.

If the total stress is increased due to additional load applied to the soil, the pore water pressure initially increases to counteract the additional stress. This increase in pressure within the pores might cause water to drain out of the soil mass, and the load is transferred to the solid grains. This will lead to the increase in effective stress. 

Effective Stress in Unsaturated Zone

Above the water table, when the soil is saturated, pore pressure will be negative (less than atmospheric). The height above the water table to which the soil is saturated is called the capillary rise, and this depends on the grain size and the size of pores. In coarse soils, the capillary rise is very small.


Between the top of the saturated zone and the ground surface, the soil is partially saturated, with a consequent reduction in unit weight . The pore pressure in a partially saturated soil consists of two components: 
Pore water pressure = uw
Pore air pressure = ua

Water is incompressible, whereas air is compressible. The combined effect is a complex relationship involving partial pressures and the degree of saturation of the soil. 

Effective Stress Under Hydrodynamic Conditions

There is a change in pore water pressure in conditions of seepage flow within the ground. Consider seepage occurring between two points P and Q. The potential driving the water flow is the hydraulic gradient between the two points, which is equal to the head drop per unit length. In steady state seepage, the gradient remains constant.


Hydraulic gradient from P to Q, i = dh/d

As water percolates through soil, it exerts a drag on soil particles it comes in contact with. Depending on the flow direction, either downward of upward, the drag either increases or decreases inter-particle contact forces.

A downward flow increases effective stress.

In contrast, an upward flow opposes the force of gravity and can even cause to counteract completely the contact forces. In such a situation, effective stress is reduced to zero and the soil behaves like a very viscous liquid. Such a state is known as quick sand condition. In nature, this condition is usually observed in coarse silt or fine sand subject to artesian conditions.


At the bottom of the soil column, 



During quick sand condition, the effective stress is reduced to zero.


where icr = critical hydraulic gradient

This shows that when water flows upward under a hydraulic gradient of about 1, it completely neutralizes the force on account of the weight of particles, and thus leaves the particles suspended in water. 

The Importance of Effective Stress

  • At any point within the soil mass, the magitudes of both total stress and pore water pressure are dependent on the ground water position. With a shift in the water table due to seasonal fluctuations, there is a resulting change in the distribution in pore water pressure with depth.

  • Changes in water level below ground result in changes in effective stresses below the water table. A rise increases the pore water pressure at all elevations thus causing a decrease in effective stress. In contrast, a fall in the water table produces an increase in the effective stress.

  • Changes in water level above ground do not cause changes in effective stresses in the ground below. A rise above ground surface increases both the total stress and the pore water pressure by the same amount, and consequently effective stress is not altered.

  • If both total stress and pore water pressure change by the same amount, the effective stress remains constant.
  • Total and effective stresses must be distinguishable in all calculations.Ground movements and instabilities can be caused by changes in total stress, such as caused by loading by foundations and unloading due to excavations. They can also be caused by changes in pore water pressures, such as failure of slopes after rainfall. 

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