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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/S016228/1
Title: Discrete element modelling of clay
Principal Investigator: McDowell, Professor G
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Dr JP de Bono
Project Partners:
Department: Faculty of Engineering
Organisation: University of Nottingham
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 March 2019 Ends: 28 February 2023 Value (£): 508,049
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Ground Engineering Soil science
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Technical Consultancy
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
03 Oct 2018 Engineering Prioritisation Panel Meeting 3 and 4 October 2018 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The aim of this project is to use the Discrete Element Method to explain the particle-scale origins of the mechanical behaviour of clay. Clays, like all soils, are granular materials composed of solid particles and fluids. Yet clays exhibit the most complex behaviour and remain the least understood. The Critical State Soil Mechanics framework has been used to describe and predict the general behaviour of soils for around 60 years, but the origins of this behaviour have rarely been investigated. Within this guiding framework, all soils (i.e. both sands and clays) exhibit the same general patterns of behaviour. For example, when a soil is sheared, it will dilate or contract, depending on the stress level and how dense or loose the initial soil is. If a soil is compressed under increasing isotropic stress, after a high enough stress is reached, a permanent decrease in volume occurs. For sands, this is known to be due to particle crushing. In fact, the normal compression line, which is a line in volume-stress space, which a sample of soil follows when subject to compression, has been shown recently by McDowell and de Bono (2013) to be solely a function of the particle strengths (specifically, the rate at which the average particle crushing strength increases with decreasing particle size). This therefore provides a micro mechanical explanation for a well-known and fundamental feature of soil behaviour.

For clays on the other hand, the underlying mechanisms which control the bulk behaviour remain unknown. This is due to difficulty in observing or measuring particle interactions due to their small size. The individual particles in clays are too small to be seen with the naked eye, and are so small that the interactions between these particles are controlled by molecular forces rather than mechanical forces. Clay particles also have more complicated shapes when compared with sand, such as hexagonal platelets or cylindrical tubes. The inter-particle forces acting between clay particles are highly dependent on the environmental conditions (e.g. pH, salinity, etc.). These forces can be attractive or repulsive, and different forces may exist between the different parts of clay particles (e.g. the 'edges' and 'faces'). The variety of different combinations of forces between particles leads to many different geometrical arrangements of particles in real clays. Just how the particles interact during engineering applications (i.e. loading/unloading) and how their geometrical arrangement changes or controls the macroscopic behaviour remain speculative, and the particles are presently impossible to observe experimentally due to the small size.

There is therefore no fundamental understanding as to what causes or leads to observed phenomena such as a decrease in volume when subjected to increasing (e.g. isotropic) stress, or volume change during shearing. These phenomena will be explained by using the Discrete Element Method (DEM) to model and investigate the behaviour of clays with varying inter-particle forces. DEM is a numerical tool which computes the interactions and motion of a large number of discrete particles. By default, the majority of DEM simulations are typically only concerned with mechanical contacts between entities, which are easily calculated; yet it is possible to implement any number of custom, more complex interaction laws. DEM simulations have been typically limited by the computational hardware available, and to date clay has rarely been modelled. This ambitious project will use DEM to 'look inside' a numerical clay sample with a large number of particles and realistic particle interactions as it undergoes a variety of stress path tests, changing the way we understand (and teach) clay behaviour.

Revealing the underlying origins of clay behaviour will allow engineers and researchers to develop more accurate models and ultimately will lead to safer, more economic designs of foundations and underground structures.

Key Findings
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Organisation Website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk