Geotechnical engineering is the branch of civil engineering concerned with the engineering behavior of earth materials. Geotechnical engineering is important in civil engineering, but also has applications in military, mining, petroleum and other engineering disciplines that are concerned with construction occurring on the surface or within the ground. Geotechnical engineering uses principles of soil mechanics and rock mechanics to investigate subsurface conditions and materials; determine the relevant physical/mechanical and chemical properties of these materials; evaluate stability of natural slopes and man-made soil deposits; assess risks posed by site conditions; design earthworks and structure foundations; and monitor site conditions, earthwork and foundation construction.
A typical geotechnical engineering project begins with a review of project needs to define the required material properties. Then follows a site investigation of soil, rock, fault distribution and bedrock properties on and below an area of interest to determine their engineering properties including how they will interact with, on or in a proposed construction. Site investigations are needed to gain an understanding of the area in or on which the engineering will take place. Investigations can include the assessment of the risk to humans, property and the environment from natural hazards such as earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, soil liquefaction, debris flows and rockfalls.
A geotechnical engineer then determines and designs the type of foundations, earthworks, and/or pavement subgrades required for the intended man-made structures to be built. Foundations are designed and constructed for structures of various sizes such as high-rise buildings, bridges, medium to large commercial buildings, and smaller structures where the soil conditions do not allow code-based design.
Foundations built for above-ground structures include shallow and deep foundations. Retaining structures include earth-filled dams and retaining walls. Earthworks include embankments, tunnels, dikes and levees, channels, reservoirs, deposition of hazardous waste and sanitary landfills. Geotechnical engineers are extensively involved in earthen and concrete dam projects, evaluating the subsurface conditions at the dam site and the side slopes of the reservoir, the seepage conditions under and around the dam and the stability of the dam under a range of normal and extreme loading conditions.
Geotechnical engineering is also related to coastal and ocean engineering. Coastal engineering can involve the design and construction of wharves, marinas, and jetties. Ocean engineering can involve foundation and anchor systems for offshore structures such as oil platforms.
The fields of geotechnical engineering and engineering geology are closely related, and have large areas of overlap. However, the field of geotechnical engineering is a speciality of engineering, where the field of engineering geology is a speciality of geology. Coming from the fields of engineering and science, respectively, the two may approach the same subject, such as soil classification, with different methods.
Geotechnical engineers are typically graduates of a four-year civil engineering program and some hold a masters degree. In the USA, geotechnical engineers are typically licensed and regulated as Professional Engineers (PEs) in most states; currently only California and Oregon have licensed geotechnical engineering specialties. The Academy of Geo-Professionals (AGP) began issuing Diplomate, Geotechnical Engineering (D.GE) certification in 2008. State governments will typically license engineers who have graduated from an ABET accredited school, passed the Fundamentals of Engineering examination, completed several years of work experience under the supervision of a licensed Professional Engineer, and passed the Professional Engineering examination.
In geotechnical engineering, soils are considered a three-phase material composed of: rock or mineral particles, water and air. The voids of a soil, the spaces in between mineral particles, contain the water and air.
The engineering properties of soils are affected by four main factors: the predominant size of the mineral particles, the type of mineral particles, the grain size distribution, and the relative quantities of mineral, water and air present in the soil matrix. Fine particles (fines) are defined as particles less than 0.075 mm in diameter.
Some of the important properties of soils that are used by geotechnical engineers to analyze site conditions and design earthworks, retaining structures, and foundations are:
- Specific weight or Unit Weight
- Cumulative weight of the solid particles, water and air of the unit volume of soil. Note that the air phase is often assumed to be weightless.
- Ratio of the volume of voids (containing air, water, or other fluids) in a soil to the total volume of the soil. Porosity is mathematically related to void ratio the by
- here e is void ratio and n is porosity
- Void ratio
- The ratio of the volume of voids to the volume of solid particles in a soil mass. Void ratio is mathematically related to the porosity by
- A measure of the ability of water to flow through the soil. It is expressed in units of velocity.
- The rate of change of volume with effective stress. If the pores are filled with water, then the water must be squeezed out of the pores to allow volumetric compression of the soil; this process is called consolidation.
- Shear strength
- The maximum shear stress that can be applied in a soil mass without causing shear failure.
- Atterberg Limits
- Liquid limit, Plastic limit, and Shrinkage limit. These indices are used for estimation of other engineering properties and for soil classification.
A variety of soil samplers exist to meet the needs of different engineering projects. The standard penetration test (SPT), which uses a thick-walled split spoon sampler, is the most common way to collect disturbed samples. Piston samplers, employing a thin-walled tube, are most commonly used for the collection of less disturbed samples. More advanced methods, such as ground freezing and the Sherbrooke block sampler, are superior, but even more expensive.
Atterberg limits tests, water content measurements, and grain size analysis, for example, may be performed on disturbed samples obtained from thick walled soil samplers. Properties such as shear strength, stiffness hydraulic conductivity, and coefficient of consolidation may be significantly altered by sample disturbance. To measure these properties in the laboratory, high quality sampling is required. Common tests to measure the strength and stiffness include the triaxial shear and unconfined compression test.
Surface exploration can include geologic mapping, geophysical methods, and photogrammetry; or it can be as simple as an engineer walking around to observe the physical conditions at the site. Geologic mapping and interpretation of geomorphology is typically completed in consultation with a geologist or engineering geologist.
Geophysical exploration is also sometimes used. Geophysical techniques used for subsurface exploration include measurement of seismic waves (pressure, shear, and Rayleigh waves), surface-wave methods and/or downhole methods, and electromagnetic surveys (magnetometer, resistivity, and ground-penetrating radar).