Date of Award:


Document Type:


Degree Name:

Master of Science (MS)


Civil and Environmental Engineering

Committee Chair(s)

John D. Rice


John D. Rice


James A. Bay


Gilberto E. Urroz


Seepage-related erosion is one of the predominant mechanisms responsible for incidents and failures of dams and levees. Current geotechnical engineering practice consists of comparing expected exit gradients with the critical gradient of the soil at the seepage exit point. The critical gradient is generally considered as the ratio of soil buoyant unit weight and the unit weight of water, suggesting that the critical gradient only depends on the void ratio and specific gravity of the solids. However, in the field and in research, it has been observed that piping can initiate at average gradients much lower than unity due to concentrations in flow and non-vertical exit faces. Therefore, there is a need for deeper understanding of the granular scale mechanisms of the piping erosion process. This thesis presents the results of a laboratory study to assess the effects that soil properties and exit face configurations have on the potential for initiation of piping and the piping mechanisms. By using a laboratory device designed and constructed specifically for this study, the critical gradients needed to initiate piping in a variety of sandy soils were measured to assess the effects that parameters such as gradation, grain size, and grain shape have on the critical gradients. The tests are also used to observe the grain scale mechanisms of piping erosion initiation. The ultimate goal of the study is to develop an empirical, but mechanism-based, grain-scale model that can take into account the effects of converging flows, non-horizontal exit faces, and soil properties while assessing the potential for piping erosion to occur.