Geotechnical engineering, also known as geotechnics, is the branch of civil engineering concerned with the engineering behavior of earth materials. It uses the principles and methods of soil mechanics and rock mechanics for the solution of engineering problems and the design of engineering works. It also relies on knowledge of geology, hydrology, geophysics, and other related sciences.
Geotechnical engineering is important in civil engineering, but also has applications in military, mining, petroleum, coastal, ocean, and other engineering disciplines that are concerned with construction occurring on the surface or within the ground, both onshore and offshore. The fields of geotechnical engineering and engineering geology are closely related, and have large areas of overlap. However, while geotechnical engineering is a specialty of civil engineering, engineering geology is a specialty of geology: they share the same principles of soil mechanics and rock mechanics, but may differ in terms of objects, scale of application, and approaches.
The tasks of a geotechnical engineer comprise the investigation of subsurface conditions and materials; the determination of the relevant physical, mechanical, and chemical properties of these materials; the design of earthworks and retaining structures (including dams, embankments, sanitary landfills, deposits of hazardous waste), tunnels, and structure foundations; the monitoring of site conditions, earthwork, and foundation construction; the evaluation of the stability of natural slopes and man-made soil deposits; the assessment of the risks posed by site conditions; and the prediction, prevention, and mitigation of damage caused by natural hazards (such as avalanches, mud flows, landslides, rockslides, sinkholes, and volcanic eruptions).
Humans have historically used soil as a material for flood control, irrigation purposes, burial sites, building foundations, and as construction material for buildings. First activities were linked to irrigation and flood control, as demonstrated by traces of dykes, dams, and canals dating back to at least 2000 BCE that were found in ancient Egypt, ancient Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, as well as around the early settlements of Mohenjo Daro and Harappa in the Indus valley. As the cities expanded, structures were erected supported by formalized foundations; Ancient Greeks notably constructed pad footings and strip-and-raft foundations. Until the 18th century, however, no theoretical basis for soil design had been developed and the discipline was more of an art than a science, relying on past experience.
Several foundation-related engineering problems, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa, prompted scientists to begin taking a more scientific-based approach to examining the subsurface. The earliest advances occurred in the development of earth pressure theories for the construction of retaining walls. Henri Gautier, a French Royal Engineer, recognized the "natural slope" of different soils in 1717, an idea later known as the soil's angle of repose. A rudimentary soil classification system was also developed based on a material's unit weight, which is no longer considered a good indication of soil type.
The application of the principles of mechanics to soils was documented as early as 1773 when Charles Coulomb (a physicist, engineer, and army Captain) developed improved methods to determine the earth pressures against military ramparts. Coulomb observed that, at failure, a distinct slip plane would form behind a sliding retaining wall and he suggested that the maximum shear stress on the slip plane, for design purposes, was the sum of the soil cohesion, and friction, where is the normal stress on the slip plane and is the friction angle of the soil. By combining Coulomb's theory with Christian Otto Mohr's 2D stress state, the theory became known as Mohr-Coulomb theory. Although it is now recognized that precise determination of cohesion is impossible because is not a fundamental soil property, the Mohr-Coulomb theory is still used in practice today.
In the 19th century Henry Darcy developed what is now known as Darcy's Law describing the flow of fluids in porous media. Joseph Boussinesq (a mathematician and physicist) developed theories of stress distribution in elastic solids that proved useful for estimating stresses at depth in the ground; William Rankine, an engineer and physicist, developed an alternative to Coulomb's earth pressure theory. Albert Atterberg developed the clay consistency indices that are still used today for soil classification. Osborne Reynolds recognized in 1885 that shearing causes volumetric dilation of dense and contraction of loose granular materials.
Modern geotechnical engineering is said to have begun in 1925 with the publication of Erdbaumechanik by Karl Terzaghi (a mechanical engineer and geologist). Considered by many to be the father of modern soil mechanics and geotechnical engineering, Terzaghi developed the principle of effective stress, and demonstrated that the shear strength of soil is controlled by effective stress. Terzaghi also developed the framework for theories of bearing capacity of foundations, and the theory for prediction of the rate of settlement of clay layers due to consolidation. In his 1948 book, Donald Taylor recognized that interlocking and dilation of densely packed particles contributed to the peak strength of a soil. The interrelationships between volume change behavior (dilation, contraction, and consolidation) and shearing behavior were all connected via the theory of plasticity using critical state soil mechanics by Roscoe, Schofield, and Wroth with the publication of "On the Yielding of Soils" in 1958. Critical state soil mechanics is the basis for many contemporary advanced constitutive models describing the behavior of soil.
Geotechnical centrifuge modeling is a method of testing physical scale models of geotechnical problems. The use of a centrifuge enhances the similarity of the scale model tests involving soil because the strength and stiffness of soil is very sensitive to the confining pressure. The centrifugal acceleration allows a researcher to obtain large (prototype-scale) stresses in small physical models.
Geotechnical engineers are typically graduates of a four-year civil engineering program and some hold a master’s degree. In the US, 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.
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