BGS Science Facilities – Engineering and Geotechnical Capability

Our laboratories go beyond standard index tests for soils and weak rocks. Using new technologies we have developed more efficient apparatus to replace old or unsafe test standards. We also undertake experiments to quantify the controls of moisture content and porosity on soil consistency, strength, electrical and seismic geophysical properties.

The Geo-lab facility includes wet and dry sample storage, and preparation of samples for testing in our Geotechnical and Geophysical laboratories. 

Geotechnical laboratories:

The Geotechnical Soil Laboratories are a comprehensive testing facility that includes both standard (e.g. BS1377) and specialised test equipment and forms part of BGS laboratory research facilities. In-house designed equipment simplifies and improves standard commercially available apparatus.

Soil testing facilities include:

  • GDS stress-path triaxial PC: computer-controlled, temperature controlled testing (50 mm–100 mm), local strain, mid-plain pore pressure measurement, CU, CD, CIU, SHANSEP, permeability, saturation, consolidation, cyclic loading, creep testing on undisturbed, compacted, or remoulded specimens (see photo)
  • triaxial: standard PC computer-logged testing (35–100 mm) UU, CU, CD, CIU; compressed-air system with low-friction cell
  • consolidation: 1-dimensional, PC-controlled oedometer testing (50 mm–100 mm) with digital strain & load gauges; swelling tests, collapse tests; undisturbed, compacted, remoulded specimens. Stresses to 3.0 MPa
  • shear box: PC-logged testing (60–100 mm), on undisturbed, shear plane, or remoulded specimens. Cut-plane and multi-reversal tests.
  • ring shear: PC-logged testing (Bromhead), residual strength; remoulded specimens (200 g)
  • shrinkage limit (SHRiNKIT); in-house method; remoulded, undisturbed or compacted specimens (see feature below)
  • 1D swelling pressure to BS1377 (1990)
  • 1D and 3D swelling strain to ISRM (1981)
  • soil suction tests using extractor plate & dew-point potentiometer methods; soil characteristic curve derivation; remoulded specimens
  • index testing to BS 1377 (1990): Atterberg limits, shrinkage limit, linear shrinkage, particle size, specific gravity, density, water content

Our facilities include bespoke apparatus, for example to automate some test procedures that formerly have either been labour intensive or have required for some highly specialised handling procedures. These include systems such as:

The shrinkage limit test is very rarely carried out in the UK partly because the British Standard test methods use mercury, but the shrinkage limit is an important parameter when investigating the volume change of clay and mudstone. The shrinkage limit apparatus, developed at BGS, ‘SHRiNKIT’ (see photo), does not use mercury. Specimen dimensions are measured with a laser rangefinder for the calculation of volume change. Weight is measured simultaneously from which water content is calculated. Shrinkage limit is calculated from the plot of water content versus volume.

Shrinkage limit test
Above: ‘SHRiNKIT’ Shrinkage limit test

More information on SHRiNKIT and shrinkage limit test of UK and international soils can be found in our case study on our Publications page (including data on the shrinkage limit of UK and international soils).

The 3D swell strain apparatus (see photo below) was developed at BGS by adapting a design taken from the International Society for Rock Mechanics (ISRM). The apparatus measures the orthogonal strains of a cube specimen of clay or mudstone immersed in water and subject to swelling. From the data the overall volumetric strain is calculated and, if required, the strain anisotropy. BGS design is simple in concept and, whilst fulfilling the criteria of ISRM specification, does not require leak-proof seals for the strain gauges armatures illustrated in the ISRM method.

3D swell strain equipment
Above: 3D swell strain-testing equipment.

The GDS Instruments GDSAOS automated 1D consolidation/swelling pressure apparatus. The swelling of the flooded specimen soil is sensed by a transducer and an electronic feedback system initiates a vertical force sufficient to counteract the swelling strain is applied via a stepper motor. The load is logged and the results are summarised in a plot of swelling pressure versus time. The test fulfils the specifications of the British Standards swelling pressure test. Clay-rich formations are capable of exerting considerable stresses on foundations and services when exposed to an increase in water content from the desiccated state. The 1D swelling pressure test enables the susceptibility of these formations to be determined.

swell pressure testing equipment
Above: 1D swell pressure testing equipment

More comprehensive soil moisture characteristic curves can be generated by combining data from both low suction test apparatus, like the gas-plate extractor and high suction apparatus like the WP4C dewpoint potentiometer.  The soil suction dewpoint potentiometer & gas-plate extractor apparatus (see photos) measure the response of a remoulded soil pat to applied suctions and allow the soil moisture characteristic curve for the soil to be established. The two methods are complementary and together cover a very wide suction range.

soil suction equipment
Above: (left) SMC extractor plate (1500 kPa) and (right) WP4C dew-point permeameter.


Please contact Matthew Kirkham for further information.

Geophysical Laboratories:

We have developed specialist apparatus and methods to study the inversion of interrelated parameters of porosity, saturation, density, suction and stiffness from shear wave velocity and electrical resistivity ground surveys. Innovative geotechnical and geophysical property testing has driven the emergence of geotechnical property imaging via geophysical proxy – an area that we have led for over a decade (see our Publications section for case studies). Laboratory calibration of our field geophysical images has led to new advances in monitoring natural landslides and the condition and deterioration of railway embankments.

Our novel experimental methods include:

Core Resistivity Imaging System:

For surface scanning of reservoir rocks and electrical imaging of fine sedimentological structures at centimetric scale (Figure 1).  Fine scale sedimentary features and open fractures in saturated rocks are interpreted from the measurements with reference to established relationships between electrical resistivity and porosity. Our results successfully characterise grainfall lamination and sandflow cross-stratification in a brine saturated, dune bedded core sample representative of a southern North Sea reservoir sandstone (shown in Figure 1), studied using the system in constant current, variable voltage mode. In contrast, in a low porosity marble, identification of open fracture porosity against a background very low matrix porosity is achieved using the constant voltage, variable current mode.

Core resistivity system
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Figure 1: Core resistivity system and image of fining up sequences in sandstone similar to North Sea reservoir rocks.

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For further information, download the study by Haslam et al. 2014 or view further cases studies on our Publications page.

Geophysical-Geotechnical Proxy:

Apparatus for conditioning samples and testing of moisture content, matric suction, density and resistivity (Figure 2- left). Cells and methods have been devised to control sample wetting and drying phases for the development of geotechnical – geophysical property relationships (Figure 2- right). We have applied these relationships to field monitoring data to visualise the effect of cyclic water movement on the stability of natural and engineered slopes (Figure 3).

For further information, download the studies by Chambers et al. 2014 from our Publications page.

Need more information?

Please contact David Gunn with your enquires or to discuss how we may help you.
Geotechnical research and design facility

Engineering and Geotechnical Capability

Our Engineering and Geotechnical Capability (EGC) leads on the development and application of field and laboratory infrastructure, as well as long-term management of geophysical and geotechnical property data.

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National Geotechnical Database

National Geotechnical Properties Database

Relational database enabling interrogation of AGS 4.0 formatted geoenvironmental and geotechnical data taken from site investigations from the geological formations critical to UK engineering.

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