Lead Research Organisation: Imperial College London
Department Name: Civil & Environmental Engineering


Civil engineering works often encounter water flowing through the ground. Examples include embankment dams, flood walls and embankments, excavations beneath the water table, tunnels and deep basements. When considering their design, engineers seek to avoid cases where the buoyancy forces exerted by the seeping water are sufficient to reduce the effective stress in the soil to zero, resulting in heave failure or "quicksand". This critical scenario is identified by considering the soil to be a continuous, but porous material. However soil is made up of individual particles of varying size and shape. Awareness is growing that seepage forces imparted on the particles can preferentially erode the smaller particles in sandy soils. There can be significant internal erosion of the soil under scenarios that are considered safe according to the classical continuum calculations used in engineering practice; this phenomenon is called internal instability.

We will improve understanding of internal instability and thereby our knowledge of how to design and assess infrastructure safely, by studying the fundamental, particle scale mechanisms involved. Internationally, several research groups are undertaking relatively large experiments of this problem. The particle-scale emphasis in the proposed research will complement, rather than supplement, these studies. The specific research direction originates from our prior research, recently published experimental data from other groups, and consideration of recently published design guidelines (e.g. the International Levee Handbook) and the proposed modifications to the hydraulic failure guidelines in the Eurocode EC7 for geotechnical design.

This cross-institutional proposal will combine experimental expertise in testing transparent soil at the University of Sheffield (UoS) with skills in discrete element modelling (DEM) at Imperial College London (IC). We will use these techniques in their most advanced form. At UoS testing facilities equipped with a laser light source will be developed to enable visualization of particle movement inside soil samples while also using tracer particles to observe fluid flow. The development of a triaxial stress path apparatus where the confining and deviatoric stress can be controlled while making these observations will be a particularly novel aspect of this research. IC will continue to champion the use of high performance computing to enable geomechanics DEM simulations and the project will exploit recent work that was carried out in the Department of Mechanical Engineering to enable DEM simulations to be coupled with computational fluid dynamics (CFD) modelling of the fluid flow. Both UoS and IC have been working independently to examine the problem of internal instability and so this proposal marks a timely collaboration to unify their complementary skill sets. For example the DEM model can provide information about particle stresses that cannot be measured in the laboratory, while instability can be directly observed for real materials in the physical tests without any of the idealizations and assumptions which are inherent in any numerical model.

The research will clarify:

(i) Which materials are initially susceptible to internal instability with volume change and the conditions whereby a material that initially erodes at a constant volume (i.e. settlement or collapse of the particle structure), transitions to having volume change.

(ii) Whether seepage velocity or hydraulic pressure gradient correlates better with the initiation of erosion.

(iii) How the stress level influences susceptibility; particularly considering stress anisotropy and the relation between principal stress orientation and seepage direction.

Planned Impact

Research beneficiaries:

The first non-academic beneficiaries of this research will be practicing geotechnical engineers. Engineers working in civil engineering design consultancies, contractors delivering civil engineering projects, and companies who own critical infrastructure such as large dams. The beneficiaries will also include engineers working in local and central government, those in public sector organizations such as the UK Environment Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers and the US Bureau of Reclamation (who own a large number of flood embankments and embankment dams), as well as industrial experts who will be involved in updating design codes that relate to the hydraulic limit state.

Society as a whole will benefit particularly from improved safety of dams and flood embankments. The importance of such structures to the quality of life (e.g. clean water supply) and economic advancement (hydroelectric power and storage) and the human consequences of any unintended failures cannot be overstated.

Educational benefits will also arise from the provision of parallel online videos of both the physical and numerical experiments via the Zenodo repository; these will enable a particulate view of granular systems to be understood "at a glance". This will give a tool to science educationalists to excite students about the curiosities (and importance) of granular systems which are central to a host of problems in both the natural and industrial worlds. The British Dam Society will fund two undergraduate researchers to participate in the research in recognition of the ability of this project to enthuse young engineers.

Benefits delivered:

Practising engineers will be able to use the improved understanding of internal instability to develop more reliable dams, flood embankments, cut-off walls, and other geotechnical structures and more accurately assess the risk posed to existing facilities by internal erosion processes.

Ensuring the appropriate parties benefit:

We will work closely with professional organizations including the British Geotechnical Association (BGA) and the British Dam Society who have agreed to advertise initial and concluding workshops associated with the project. We will offer preferential registration rates to members of these bodies to encourage engagement amongst their members. We will carefully target potential beneficiaries of the research when we advertise these workshops, e.g. we will contact all of the participants at the recent Environmental Agency workshop on Reservoir Safety and UK All Reservoir Panel Engineers. We will issue bi-annual 2 page summaries of the research and email them to all of the aforementioned groups. We will also present findings from the research via forums such as the poster session at the annual BGA conference which have good industrial participation. Recognizing that practising engineers often do not read academic journals we aim to write some technical magazine articles for trade magazines e.g. Ground Engineering.

We have a strong track record of engagement with industry; for example O'Sullivan's prior research in this area was funded by ARUP and Kajima. She coordinated the Rankine lecture for three years (the largest event associated with the Institution of Civil Engineers), while Bowman has previously organised a two day workshop on internal erosion with the New Zealand Society on Large Dams (the NZ branch of ICOLD) which was aimed at dissemination of the latest research to practitioners. At the end of EPSRC funded grants, EP/G064954/1 and EP/G064180/1, O'Sullivan co-organized a one day workshop which attracted good industry participation and industrial sponsorship, she made the presentations from this workshop available via the BGA website. We will adopt this partnering approach with professional bodies to disseminate the findings from the proposed research as widely as possible.
Description We have shown that the balance of stress between finer and coarser grains in a gap graded material evolves during shearing.

We have developed a new approach for coarse grid (unresolved) DEM-CFD analyses.

We have shown that a network based model can be used to determine fluid-particle interaction forces for coupled analyses.

We have shown how CFD can be used with transparent soil to study flow in the porespace in soil.
Exploitation Route The new unresolved CFD-DEM approach is applicable over a range of disciplines including chemical engineering, geology and civil engineering.

The data on the evolution of stress in the different size fractions during shearing of granular materials should form the basis for future experimental work in soil mechanics.
Sectors Chemicals,Construction,Energy,Transport

Description Collaboration between Imperial College and Sheffield 
Organisation University of Sheffield
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The collaboration between Dr. E. Bowman and Dr. C O'Sullivan is central to this project.
Collaborator Contribution Dr. E. Bowman and her team will provide the experimental data for this project.
Impact This is not a multi-disciplinary collaboration. We co-organized a kick off workshop for the project. Regular discussions are ongoing.
Start Year 2017
Description Collaboration between Imperial College and the University of Glasgow 
Organisation University of Glasgow
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Dr. Tom Shire is a Co-I on this project.
Collaborator Contribution Dr. Shire is advising on the DEM simulations.
Impact This is not a multi-disciplinary collaboration. The ongoing discussion will inform the research outputs.
Start Year 2017
Description Collaboration with the University of British Columbia 
Organisation University of British Columbia
Country Canada 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Prof. J. Fannin is advising on the direction of the project.
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Fannin is discussing the detailed nature of the research based on his track record of experimental research.
Impact The collaboration is not multi-disciplinary. Discussions with Prof. Fannin are informing the direction of the research.
Start Year 2017
Description Participation in 2019 Meeting of European Working Group on Internal Erosion (ICOLD) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact Adnan Sufian and Catherine O'Sullivan made presentations on this research at this meeting
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Participation in Levee Safety Partnership meeting Oct 2018 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact This was a one day meeting in Amsterdam involving the UK Environment Agency, the US Army Corps of Engineers and Rijkswaterstraat who manage the Dutch levee system. The audience of about 30 also included Italian researchers. The discussion was around levee safety. Prof. C. O'Sullivan participated by giving a talk in which this project was outlined.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Workshop on Seepage 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact On August 31 and Sept 1 a workshop on seepage induced instabilities was held at Imperial College London. The workshop was organized in conjunction with the British Geotechnical Association and the British Dam Society. The workshop was also supported by three technical committees of the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering: TC 105 Geo-Mechanics from Micro to Macro, TC 201 Dikes and Levees, and TC 213 Scour and Erosion. The workshop was organized to launch the EPSRC funded collaboration between Imperial College London, the University of Sheffield entitled "Particle-Scale Investigation of Seepage Induced Geotechnical Instability", and the EPSRC provided financial support for the workshop. There were 48 participants including representatives from consulting engineers, dam owners and academics.

The first session of the workshop focussed on UK practice. The first speaker, Rob Gilbert from ARUP, reminded us all how international UK practice is, describing case histories of dams in Myanmar, Mauritius and Sudan. Dr Toby Roberts from WJ Groundwater presented a number of dewatering case histories and discussed some of the issues associated with filter selection for dewatering wells. Dr Chris Menkiti from GCG presented some case histories from the Warsaw Metro. Dr. Menkiti also highlighted the problem of sea borne transport of mineral ores; instabilities associated with this material have resulted in the loss of a number of large ships in recent years.

The second session of the workshop was loosely based around a consideration of design guidance and codes. The first speaker was Dr Brian Simpson from ARUP, who has been involved in a working group looking at seepage related issues in EC7. Dr Philip Smith from Royal Haskoning DHV spoke about his experience with UK levees (flood embankments) and introduced the Levee Handbook. Dr Bernard Odenwald provided a German perspective, while Mr. Rod Bridle introduced the ICOLD Bulletin 164 on Internal Erosion.

The second day of the workshop was research orientated. In the first session, there was a focus on international experimental research, with presentations from Prof Jonathan Fannin (University of British Columbia, Canada), Dr Didier Marot (University of Nantes, France) and Prof Akihiro Takahashi (Tokyo Institute of Technology, Japan). The final session of the workshop outlined UK research, and started with a presentation from Dr Philippe Sentenac (Strathclyde) on field monitoring of internal erosion in flood embankments. Finally, the joint Sheffield - Imperial research project team gave presentations on transparent soil and discrete element modelling.

Key points from the workshop were:

• There was a repeated theme in the industrial presentations of the need to understand both the geology of sites as well as the history of human intervention at sites, whether the site is an existing levee or a new deep excavation in an urban environment. Dr Smith and Dr Odenwald highlighted that failures are also often observed at irregularities (transitions) or junctions with structures intercepting levees.

• There is scope for new technologies to help us better understand site conditions: Dr Philip Smith from Royal Haskoning DHV highlighted the ability of LIDAR to help identify old meanders and old drainage channels. Dr Sentenec discussed the use of geophysics, focussing on electrical resistivity tomography and describing use of this technology on flood embankments in France.

• The risk posed to dams and flood embankments by internal erosion was highlighted. Considering the performance of embankments in England since 2007, Dr Smith highlighted that the particular threats to UK levees are seepage, internal erosion and uplift; however, with extreme floods such as those in the winter of 2015/2016 overtopping is also an issue. He noted that these mechanisms pose a greater risk to levees than slope stability failures.

• Dr Simpson pointed out that factoring water pressure under using an EC7 approach can lead to impossible situations.

• Dr Smith highlighted the fact that despite the significance of levees, in contrast to dams, there is less legislation and inspection. Dr Smith pointed out that these structures are vulnerable as they were typically not designed to particular standards and are often constructed on poor ground; their fragility is typically not apparent. To emphasize how fragile these structures can be, Dr Smith showed a video of a US Corps of Engineers experiment in which a full-scale levee on silty sand failed only 15 minutes after the development of a pipe beneath the levee.

• Mr. Bridle explained that the ICOLD bulletin on internal erosion is very useful to engineers seeking to understand the mechanics of internal erosion; notably they define the four mechanisms, suffusion, backward erosion, contact erosion and concentrated leak erosion. He highlighted that each mechanism can fundamentally be considered as a load - resistance problem. He pointed out that the challenge is to estimate the hydraulic forces causing erosion in vulnerable soils.

• Prof Fannin explained that in seeking to improve understanding of internal erosion in embankment dams there is a need for both data completeness and model completeness.

• Prof Marot proposed that in assessing suffusion (one form of internal erosion) the power expended by the seepage force should be considered.

• Presentations from Dr E. Bowman (Sheffield) and dir. T. Shire (Glasgow) demonstrated the power of transparent soil and discrete element modelling to examine the fundamentals of seepage-induced instabilities.

• Recent guidelines and resources for practicing engineers were highlighted including The International Levee Handbook, ICOLD Bulletin 164 on Internal Erosion, the German BAW Codes of Practice.

Selected presentations from the workshop are available at For further information, contact Prof Catherine O'Sullivan (
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2017