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A predictive model for the water retention

curve: application to tailings from
hard-rock mines
Michel Aubertin, Jean-François Ricard, and Robert P. Chapuis

Abstract: It is now commonly recognized that many geotechnical problems are related to the unsaturated behavior of soils.
Such is the case for phenomena occurring at shallow depths in the so-called vadose zone. Unsaturated flow is also very
important for the management of milling wastes, especially for seepage in and around tailings ponds. Suction properties
constitute a key element for the functional representation of unsaturated flow conditions. These are usually shown by the
water retention curve, which gives the relationship between volumetric water content (θ) and matric suction (ψ). Laboratory
measurements have been performed on three different tailings from hard-rock mines in the Abitibi region to study the effect of
various factors, including grain size and porosity, on the θ–ψ relationship. The main results are presented in this paper. The
data are first analyzed using a well-known descriptive model. The experimental results are also used to estimate the air-entry
value according to various procedures including a simple method proposed by the authors. Then, it is shown how an existing
predictive model can be modified to obtain, from basic material properties, the complete water retention curve.
Key words: unsaturated flow, tailings, water retention curve, moisture content, saturation ratio, porosity.

Résumé : On reconnaît maintenant que plusieurs problèmes géotechniques sont reliés au comportement des sols non saturés.
C’est notamment le cas pour les phénomènes ayant cours à faible profondeur près de la surface, dans la zone vadose.
L’écoulement non saturé est également très important pour divers problèmes de gestion de rejets de concentrateurs,
spécialement ceux associés aux conditions d’écoulement à l’intérieur et au pourtour des parcs à résidus miniers. Les propriétés
de succion constituent un élément clé pour la représentation fonctionnelle des écoulements non saturés. Celles-ci sont
usuellement obtenues à partir de la courbe de rétention d’eau qui caractérise la relation entre la teneur en eau volumique (θ) et
la succion matricielle (ψ). Des mesures en laboratoire ont été réalisées sur trois résidus miniers provenant de mines en roches
dures de la région de l’Abitibi, afin d’étudier l’effet de divers facteurs, telles la granulométrie et la porosité, sur la relation
θ–ψ. Les principaux résultats obtenus sont présentés dans cet article. Les résultats sont d’abord analysés à partir d’un modèle
descriptif bien connu. On détermine aussi la pression d’entrée d’air selon diverses approches, incluant une méthode simple
proposée par les auteurs. On montre ensuite qu’il est possible, en modifiant un modèle de prédiction existant, d’obtenir la
courbe complète de rétention d’eau à partir de propriétés de base du matériau.
Mots clés : écoulement non saturé, résidus miniers, courbe de rétention d’eau, teneur en eau, degré de saturation, porosité.

Introduction minerals (Nicholson et al. 1989, 1991; Collin and Rasmuson

1990; Aubertin et al. 1993, 1995a, 1996a; Vanapalli et al. 1996).
Many current geotechnical problems may involve unsaturated The particular flow conditions related to unsaturated media
porous media. These include earth dams, beaches, wetlands, require specific information seldom used in classical soil me-
transportation infrastructures, ground excavations, ground-water chanics. Accordingly, the study of hydraulic conditions in un-
pumping systems, and waste disposal facilities. Many mining saturated soils has gained a lot of interest in recent years
activities also involve unsaturated flow conditions. Examples (e.g., Alonso and Delage 1995). General presentations in this
include problems related to in situ leaching installations area include those from Bear (1972), Hillel (1980), Kovács
(Friedel and Schmidt 1992), seepage losses below tailings im- (1981), Mualem (1986), and Fredlund and Rahardjo (1993).
poundments (McWorther and Nelson 1979; Larson and Goering
The water retention curve is probably the most widely used
1990), groundwater conditions in tailings deposits (Barbour
method of characterizing hydraulic properties of unsaturated
et al. 1993), settlements in and around tailings ponds (Santos
porous media such as soils and tailings. This curve is also
et al. 1992), and the design of covers with capillary barrier
known as the soil–water characteristic curve, the capillary
effects to limit the generation of acidic leachate from sulfidic
pressure saturation curve, the soil moisture retention curve, the
soil moisture characteristic curve, the soil water retentivity
Received March 13, 1997. Accepted July 18, 1997. curve, and the suction volumetric water content curve. The
relationship between the volumetric water content θ and nega-
M. Aubertin and R.P. Chapuis. Department of Civil,
Geological and Mining Engineering, École Polytechnique, tive pressure (or suction) ψ in a porous media has been shown
P.O. Box 6079, Station Centre-ville, Montréal, to be related to the unsaturated hydraulic conductivity of the
QC H3C 3A7, Canada. material (e.g., Mishra and Parker 1990; Fredlund et al. 1994;
J.-F. Ricard. Golder Associates Ltd., 63 Place Frontenac, Marion et al. 1994; Sidiropoulos and Yannopoulos 1994), as
Pointe-Claire, QC H9R 4Z7, Canada. well as to its shear strength and volume-change properties

Can. Geotech. J. 35: 55–69 (1998) © 1998 NRC Canada

56 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

(e.g., Fredlund 1995). The water retention curve also provides Fig. 1. Grain-size curves for the three tailings BE, SE, and SI.
an indication of the water profile, due to capillary rise, above
the water table in natural homogeneous deposits (Kovács 1981;
Bear and Verruijt 1987).
The θ–ψ relationship, where θ is adimensional and ψ is
given in pressure units or in height of water (pressure per unit
weight), has thus become a key component in any investiga-
tion of unsaturated materials. Accordingly, an adequate mathe-
matical representation of the water retention curve (WRC) is
considered an important step for solving different problems,
and a number of models have been proposed over the years
(e.g., Mualem 1986; Bruce and Luxmore 1986; van Genuchten
et al. 1991; Bumb et al. 1992; Fredlund and Xing 1994; Rossi
and Nimmo 1994). The majority of existing models were de-
veloped to describe the WRC. Such curvilinear equations have
been formulated to adjust to experimental data as closely as
possible. In that regard, the most often used equations are
probably those of Brooks and Corey (1964, 1966) and
van Genuchten (1980) (e.g., Stankovitch and Lockington
1995). In these models, the constants (or material parameters)
depend on the basic soil properties, including grain size and Permeability tests were done using rigid-wall permeame-
porosity (e.g., Brakensiek et al. 1981; Bumb et al. 1992). ters, oedometer apparatus, and triaxial cells. Tests were per-
There are also a few models that were developed for pre- formed with constant head or falling head on reconstituted
dictive purposes, using basic material properties (e.g., Gupta samples with a void ratio (e) between 0.5 and 1.0. Results show
and Larson 1979; Arya and Paris 1981; Campbell 1985; that there is a good agreement between the saturated hydraulic
Vereecken et al. 1989; Rawls et al. 1991; Rajkai et al. 1996). conductivity (k) measured with various techniques, with k val-
Among these models, the one proposed by Kovács (1981) is ues usually ranging between 5 × 10–6 and 2 × 10–4 cm/s, de-
of particular interest. Although relatively unknown and seldom pending on grain size and porosity. The experimental results
used, the Kovács (1981) model is fairly simple and has a were also correlated to the well-known Kozeny–Carman equa-
physical significance that is lacking in many of the more em- tion, as expressed by Chapuis and Montour (1992), and to a
pirical models. recently developed expression (Aubertin et al. 1996b). As an
In this paper, the authors present the results of a laboratory example, Fig. 2 shows the measured values for site BE material
investigation of tailings from hard-rock mines to evaluate their together with the k–e relationship obtained from the Kozeny–
θ–ψ relationship. The experimental results are used to cal- Carman equation. Other properties of the three tailings are
culate the parameters from the van Genuchten (1980) model. presented in Ricard (1994) and Aubertin et al. (1995a, 1996a).
Different ways of estimating the air-entry value (AEV ; ψa)
are then presented, together with a simple predictive equation. Experimental evaluation of the u–c relationship
The Kovács (1981) model is then introduced. The model is The evaluation of the WRC was done by performing tests
modified to better account for the available laboratory test re- using a plate extractor according to the standard procedure
sults, and the significance of the ensuing MK model is dis- ASTM D3152 (ASTM 1994b). A few tests were also done in
cussed. Tempe cells using a procedure inspired by standards ASTM
D2325 (ASTM 1994a) and ASTM D3152 (see also Klute 1986;
Carter 1993). For each test, the remolded specimens were first
Experimental program densified in a mold, adjusting the energy to attain the desired
void ratio, which varied between 0.5 and 0.9. The specimens
Basic properties were then saturated in triaxial cells using a back pressure, cut
Tailings are the byproduct of the milling of ore extracted from with a ring, and placed on a porous plate in the plate extractor
underground or open-pit mines. For mining operations in hard or Tempe cells. These two types of apparatus are shown in
rocks, such milling wastes are made of rock flour whose grain Fig. 3. With the former apparatus, a plate with an AEV of
size is usually equivalent to a silty soil. 1500 kPa (about 15 000 cm) of water was used and the tests
The investigation presented here is part of a broader study were run using between 6 and 12 increments for an applied air
on the hydrogeological properties of tailings used in covers to pressure between 15 and 1400 kPa. A few measurements were
control the production of acidic effluents from reactive milling also done with a plate having an AEV of 3000 cm, for pres-
wastes (Aubertin et al. 1993, 1995a, 1996a). The experimental sures between 7 and 275 kPa. With Tempe cells, plates with an
program includes the evaluation of a number of properties for AEV of 1000 and 5000 cm were used, with pressures between
the materials at hand. The three tailings studied were obtained 7 and 70 kPa (in the former case) and 20 and 400 kPa (in the
from bulk sampling at depths between 30 and 90 cm at sites latter case).
identified hereafter as BE, SE, and SI. Grain-size curves for The main difference between the two types of apparatus is
these materials are shown in Fig. 1. According to the Unified that the plate extractor usually involves testing of different
Soil Classification System (Casagrande 1948), these tailings specimens during a test (one for each pressure increment),
are low-plasticity silts (ML). whereas the Tempe cell works with a single specimen for the

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Aubertin et al. 57

Fig. 2. Hydraulic conductivity (k) values of tailings BE expressed θ − θr −M

as a function of the void ratio; experimental data are compared with [1] θe = = [l + |αψ|N]
the k–e relationship given by the Kozeny–Carman equation (taken
θs − θr
from Aubertin et al. 1995a). where θe is the effective (or reduced) volumetric water content,
θr is the residual value of θ, and θs is its value at saturation
(it is considered that θs is equal to n, the porosity); α, N, and
M are material parameters (M = 1 – 1/N is often used). While
adjusting the model parameters to the experimental data, the
RETC code calculates a value for parameter α, which is taken
as the inverse of ψa (α = ψa–1; e.g., Rawls et al. 1991). As will
be seen below, the ensuing ψa (identified as ψVG) is generally
overestimated when compared with other methods, and it is
not very sensitive to a change in the slope of the water retention
curve past the initial plateau (where θ ≅ θs). For instance, the
schematic representation in Fig. 8 shows that a unique AEV
can be associated with widely different saturation ratios
(Sr = θ/n) and with different θ–ψ curves.
The second and probably most common method available
for the determination of ψa is the one proposed by Brooks and
Corey (1964). This method is based on the assumption that the
entire test, which eliminates the variations between different θe–ψ relationship (in a semi-logarithmic plot) can be idealized
specimens. The agreement between the results obtained from by two straight lines, one horizontal and one inclined. The
the two apparatuses was usually good (for specimens with intersection between these two lines gives the pressure (suc-
similar porosity). tion ψBC) corresponding to the start of desaturation, as shown
Typical testing results are shown in Figs. 4–6 for the three in Fig. 9 (see also Kovács 1981; and Fredlund and Rahardjo
tailings. The results presented in these figures were obtained 1993). However, some adjustments may be required for the
with the plate extractor for at least two sets of material sam- θr value to ensure that the results obey this idealized repre-
ples. This explains some of the data scattering. Also shown in sentation of the water retention curve; such adjustment is rep-
these figures are the AEV (or ψa) obtained according to three resented by the moved points in Fig. 9.
methods and the empirical θ–ψ relationship obtained from the The third method was proposed by the authors. It is based
van Genuchten (1980) equation (presented below). These ex- on the fact that around the AEV, some continuous air channels
perimental results are typical of WRC reported by others for are created within the material (Kovács 1981). This often oc-
tailings (e.g., Yong et al. 1991) and for silty soils (e.g., Collin curs for a saturation ratio Sr of about 90% (e.g., Corey 1957;
and Rasmuson 1990). A few tests were also run on tailings Matyas 1967). Accordingly, the authors have arbitrarily de-
mixed with bentonite (6 and 10% by weight). As expected (see fined AEV as being the suction (identified as ψ90) correspond-
Fig. 7), bentonite increases both the AEV and the water con- ing to θ equal to 0.9θs. The 90% value is also justified in cover
tent for a given suction beyond the AEV. design technology by oxygen effective diffusion coefficient
Figures 4–7 show that the θ–ψ curve is affected by the grain (De) measurements in unsaturated media which have shown
size and void ratio of the material. These aspects are taken into that De becomes practically equal to the diffusion coefficient
account in the model presented below. of oxygen in water when the saturation ratio Sr (or degree of
saturation) reaches about 90% (Aachib et al. 1993; Aubertin
et al. 1993, 1995a).
The air-entry value The values obtained by the three methods presented above
are indicated by arrows in Figs. 4–7. Estimated values are also
listed in Table 1, together with the parameters from [1] as
Experimental determination given by the RETC code. The values obtained with the first
One of the main parameters that can be obtained from the method (ψVG) are always the largest, and the smallest are given
WRC is the so-called air-entry value (AEV or ψa), which rep- by the second method (ψBC). The third method (ψ90) provides
resents the matric suction ψ (ψ = ua – uw, where ua is the gas an intermediate value that is usually closer to that provided by
pore pressure, and uw is the water pressure) at which the largest the Brooks and Corey (1964) approach. The main advantage
pores in the material start to drain. It is also known as the of the method proposed by the authors is its simplicity, as it
bubbling pressure or threshold pressure (Bear 1972). In gen- does not require any calculations or adjustments of results.
eral, it is expected that ψa is in the range of 2–10 cm of water
for coarse sands, 10–35 cm for medium sands, 35–70 cm for
fine sands, 70–250 cm for silts, and more than 250 cm for clays Proposed equation
(e.g., Kovács 1981; Bear and Verruijt 1987). In many situations, it may be useful to have an estimate of ψa,
Various approaches can be used to evaluate ψa from the knowing only some basic properties of the material. A few
θ–ψ relationship. The first method used here ensues from fit- relationships have been proposed for that purpose (e.g.,
ting the experimental data to the van Genuchten (1980) equa- Nicholson et al. 1991; Huang 1994; Åberg 1996). Using the
tion, using the RETC code (van Genuchten et al. 1991). This data presented above, the authors have found that a generaliza-
equation can be written as follows: tion of the Polubarinova–Kochina equation, presented in Bear

© 1998 NRC Canada

58 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

Fig. 3. Schematical illustration of the plate extractor and Tempe cell used in this study.

(1972, eq. 9.4.9), represents the data fairly well. This simple 2 2
 h    h  
expression is written as follows: [4] Sc = 1 −   + 1 exp−  
co co
   ψ
   
[2] ψa = β2
eD10  1 − n  −β  αk 
[5] Sa = a1 ψ 1 D 
where D10 is the diameter for which 10% by weight passed the  n   h
sieve having an opening size D (in mm), and b is a constant that
varies according to the method used to determine ψa. For ψBC,  1 − n   αk 
[6] hco = a2  
the average value of b is 2.5 mm2, whereas it is 4.0 mm2 for ψ90.  n   Dh 
Figure 10 shows the correlation between the calculated and In these equations, Sr is the saturation ratio (or degree of satu-
experimentally determined values. ration; Sr = θ/θs), which includes two components, namely Sc
It is interesting to mention that a similar equation was used due to capillary forces and Sa due to adhesion forces; ψ is the
by Terzaghi and Peck (1948) to estimate capillary rise above matric suction (ψ = ua–uw); hco is a representative water rise
the water table in natural deposits, but with a much larger value taken as an intermediate value between ψBC and ψr (the suction
(by almost an order of magnitude) for parameter b, which when θ reaches θr); n is the porosity, considered here as being
probably means that it wasn’t meant for estimating the AEV equal to θs, the volumetric water content at saturation; αk is a
as defined above. shape factor; Dh is an effective grain size; a1 and a2 are model
coefficients (a1 = 2.5 × 10–3 and a2 = 7.5 × 10–2 are mean val-
ues suggested by Kovács 1981); and β1 and β2 are exponents
Prediction of the water retention curve (with proposed values of 1/6 and 2/3, respectively).
When [3]–[5] are combined with the suggested parameters
The Kovács model values, the WRC can then be expressed as
Many models have been proposed to describe the water reten- 2 2
tion curve. Most of these were developed by fitting empirical  h    h  
θ = n −   + 1 exp−  
co co
functions to experimental data. Despite being quite useful in [7]
many practical situations, these models cannot directly take  ψ    ψ 
into account the effect of a variation in the material basic   hco  
properties, because the model parameters are only represen- × n − 1.4 × 10−2  (n2 − n3)1/3(hco)1/2
tative of a given material state (expressed in terms of pore-  ψ 
size distribution). The above equation is considered valid for
To evaluate if existing models could provide information
in that regard, the authors have looked at various formulations αk
50 < < 25 × 103
found in the literature. Although it has not received much at- Dh
tention, the model developed by Kovács (1981) appeared very
A schematic WRC given by the above equations is shown in
promising, mainly because of its relative simplicity and sound
Fig. 11, with the relative contribution of Sc and Sa. As can be
physical basis. Kovács (1981) has proposed that the WRC be
seen, the general shape of the corresponding θ–ψ curve (where
described by the following equations:
θ = θsSr) is in accordance with the experimental results pre-
[3] Sr = Sc + Sa(1 − Sc) sented above. In his book, Kovács (1981) shows a series of
WRC where the calculated WRC closely match the experi-
with mental results.

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Aubertin et al. 59

Fig. 4. Experimental results showing the θ–ψ relationship for BE tailings. Also shown are the van Genuchten (1980) relationship and ψa for
different evaluation methods (see text).

Fig. 5. Experimental results showing the θ–ψ relationship for SE tailings. Also shown are the van Genuchten (1980) relationship and ψa for
different evaluation methods (see text).

However, application of the Kovács (1981) model is not where CU is the uniformity coefficient (CU = D60/D10). Hence,
always straightforward, mainly because some of the model for tailings, one can estimate that αk/Dh equals 4/D10 to 10/D10,
parameters are not easy to estimate. For instance, the value of with the coefficient 10 being more representative for tailings
the ratio αk/Dh must be specified to obtain hco and Sa. This ratio and giving a better fit to the data presented above.
is related to the specific surface area of the material. Unfortu- It is interesting to note here that when αk/Dh is expressed
nately, Kovács (1981) does not show explicitly how this value as a function of D10, then [6] becomes similar to [2] used for
can be obtained from basic material properties for real particu- the evaluation of the AEV. This is in accordance with Kovács’
late media such as soils or tailings. Taken separately, the shape (1981) estimate of hco which is given as a linear function of
factor αk should approximately vary between 6 (sphere) and ψa. This may also mean that the ψa prediction could be im-
18 (tetrahedron), and Dh is the Kozeny’s effective grain size proved by introducing in [2] a CU function (as in eq. [8]). This
that represents the diameter of a sphere for a sample comprised would be in accordance with the known effect of grain-size
of particles of uniform size (homodisperse) which has the same distribution on ψa (e.g., Bear and Verruijt 1987; Rawls et al.
surface to volume ratio as the investigated heterodisperse sample. 1991; Leverson and Lohnes 1995).
For practical applications, Dh has often been related to di- When the Kovács (1981) model, presented above, is ap-
ameter D10. Using experimental data presented in Kovács plied to the authors’ experimental data, the calculated results
(1981), it is found that the value of Dh can be estimated from are encouraging but leave some room for improvement. For
the following equation: instance, Fig. 12 shows a rather poor correlation between the
predicted curve and experimental results on material SI. To
[8] Dh = (1.17 log CU + 1)D10 for CU ≤ 50 ameliorate predictions, various alternatives were considered.

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60 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

Fig. 6. Experimental results showing the θ–ψ relationship for SI tailings. Also shown are the van Genuchten (1980) relationship and ψa for
different evaluation methods (see text).

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Aubertin et al. 61

Fig. 7. Experimental results showing the θ–ψ relationship for SI tailings modified with bentonite: (a) 6% and (b) 10% by weight.

A simple modification, which has been used previously with it is useful to reassess the model equations to introduce more
some success by the authors, can be expressed as follows rational modifications.
(Aubertin et al. 1995b):

[9] Sr = Svc + Swa (1 − Svc) A modified version of the model

As seen above, the Kovács (1981) model comprises two com-
where v and w were initially considered fitting parameters. ponents, namely the capillary saturation (Sc) and the adhesion
When using αk/Dh = 10/D10, it was found that most data were saturation (Sa). Because the volumetric water content θ, and
well represented with v = 0.2 and w = 1. A representative result hence the capillary rise above the water table, depends essen-
is shown in Fig. 13. With these fixed v and w values, however, tially on pore diameters, the capillary component Sc of the
the fitting is much less conclusive for tailings modified with water retention curve is approximated in the model by a prob-
bentonite. The modification of the Kovács (1981) model given ability function similar to those used for pore-size distribution.
by [9], because of its entirely empirical nature, unfortunately Considering a physical model composed of capillary tubes
defeats the purpose of having a physically based model. To having different diameters, Kovács (1981) has used a pore-size
better reflect the author’s intent (and probably that of Kovács), frequency distribution based on a gamma function which, after

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62 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

Table 1. Material properties, AEV, and parameters from the van Genuchten (1980) equation.
AEV Equation 1
Material e (void ratio) D10 (× 10–3 mm) ψBC (cm) ψ90 (cm) ψVG (cm) α (cm–1×10–3) N
BE 0.674 3.5 165 200 403 2.48 1.59
0.710 3.5 130 160 331 3.02 1.47
0.795 3.5 120 130 265 3.77 1.63
SE 0.688 3.1 200 260 495 2.02 1.57
0.798 3.1 130 180 362 2.76 1.56
0.929 3.1 90 170 357 2.80 1.84
SI 0.695 3.3 170 230 459 2.18 1.60
0.746 3.3 160 200 388 2.58 1.63
0.802 3.3 140 170 329 3.04 1.54
SI 6% 0.686 1.2 300 450 704 1.42 1.44
0.717 1.2 270 370 671 1.49 1.54
0.870 1.2 240 330 649 1.54 1.51
SI 10% 0.698 1.0 300 590 676 1.48 1.19
0.809 1.0 280 500 602 1.66 1.22
0.944 1.0 170 260 439 2.28 1.39
Note: The AEV is given in centimetres of water, as it is defined in terms of relative pressure (or pressure head).

Fig. 8. The van Genuchten (1980) equation representation of the Fig. 9. Determination of the air entry value (ψa AEV) according to
WRC at constant AEV and the effect of a change in parameter N. the procedure proposed by Brooks and Corey (1964).

a few simplifications, reduces to an exponential function. The a shape that is typical of pore-size distribution curves for various
ensuing expression of the probability function then becomes particulate media. Equation [12] reduces to [10] for m = 1.
Once integrated, [12] gives
[10] f(x) = x exp(− x)
Upon integration of that equation, one obtains [13] F(x) = 1 − [(x + 1)exp(x)] + x2
Figure 15 shows a graphical representation of this equation for
[11] F(x) = 1 − (x + 1)exp(− x) + x1 x2 = 0. The shape of functions f(x) and F(x) given by [12] and [13]
This function is the basis of [4], with x = (hco/ψ)2 and the inte- shows some strong similarities with functions recently intro-
gration constant x1 = 0. duced by Kosugi (1994), which nevertheless differ from the
The reduction of the gamma function to an exponential above in their mathematical formulation and development bases.
function used by Kovács (1981) appears to induce some un- If [13] is used (with x2 = 0) to describe Sc, the following is
necessary restrictions. An intermediate solution between the then obtained:
gamma and exponential functions is proposed with the follow- 2 2
 h    h  
ing alternative function: [14] Sc = 1 −   + 1 exp−m  
co co
   ψ
   
[12] f(x) = m exp(− mx)(x + 1)m − (x + 1)m−1
  Equation [14] is the expression retained for the modified ver-
where m is an adjustment parameter. This function is shown in sion of the Kovács (1981) model (called MK). For its applica-
Fig. 14 for various m values. As can be seen, this function has tion, it is considered that hco varies linearly with ψa. Using

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Aubertin et al. 63

Fig. 10. Relationship between calculated and measured values for ψBC and ψ90, according to [2].

Kovács’ (1981) results, it can be inferred that hco = 1.25ψBC to to the thickness of the film in the form of a hyperbola of a sixth
2.5ψBC. For the calculations presented below, the authors have order, and rearranging the terms for a particulate media, Kovács
used hco = ψ90, with ψ90 given by [2]; this provides an accept- (1981) has obtained [5].
able estimate for a first application of the MK model. The contribution of Sa to the overall WRC is more important
The adhesion component Sa of the water retention curve is at relatively large ψ values. Unfortunately, there are not much
associated to the thin film of water that covers the solid wall data available on tailings for these conditions. It is thus difficult
formed by grains in unsaturated media. It is due to the attrac- at this point to evaluate this component of the Kovács model.
tion forces that exist between the wall of the solid skeleton and The function can nevertheless be adjusted to insure the pro-
water created by the electrostatic charges of the grain surface gressive decrease of Sr (and θ) at large ψ values, in order to
and the dipolar character of water molecules (e.g., Hillel 1980; reach a fully dry state at a finite suction. Considering the above-
Mitchel 1993). Starting from a model that approximates the mentioned results and considerations, this function is rewritten
adhesion force by relating the tension at the surface of the film as follows for the MK model:

© 1998 NRC Canada

64 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

Fig. 11. Illustration of the Kovács (1981) model (eqs. [3]–[6]), showing the contribution of the capillary (Sc) and adhesion (Sa) components to
the overall saturation ratio (Sr).

Fig. 12. Application of the Kovács (1981) model (eq. [7]) to the Fig. 13. Application of [9] for the prediction of the WRC of tailings.
prediction of the WRC of tailings. 0.5
0.5 SI e = 0.746
SI e = 0.746
Volumetric water content

Volumetric water content


0.2 Experimental results
Experimental results Kovacs (with v = 0.2)

1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000
1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000
Suction (cm of water)
Suction (cm of water)

a The MK model is given by [3] and [14]–[16], with hco= ψ90,

[15] Sa = Cψ ψ2/3 where ψ90 is given by [2] with b = 4.00 mm2. When applying
e1/3ψ1/6 90
these modified equations, two parameters remain open: m (in
with eq. [14]) and a (in eq. [15]). Using the limiting values pro-
ln(1 + ψ ⁄ ψr) posed by Kovács (1981) for a1 in [5] (= 1.75 to 3.25 × 10–3),
[16] Cψ = 1 − it can be inferred that parameter a is approximately equal to
ln(1 + ψo ⁄ ψr)
0.006 for a draining curve (by opposition to a wetting curve).
where coefficient a replaces a1 (in [5]) as material parameter. Parameter a mostly affects the WRC at large ψ values, where
Factor Cψ is a correction introduced by Fredlund and Xing the adhesion component plays its major role (see Fig. 11). The
(1994) to insure that θ goes to zero when ψ reaches a certain value of m controls the slope of the inclined portion of the
limiting value ψo taken equal to 107 cm of water (e.g., Ross WRC and also affects ψa; it can be obtained by adjusting the
et al. 1991). In [16], ψr is the suction corresponding to the theoretical curve to experimental data. Using the test results
residual water content θr; a value of 15 × 103 cm of water was from material SI at e = 0.802, it is estimated that m ≅ 0.05 (see
selected for ψr in the following calculations. Fig. 16a).

© 1998 NRC Canada

Aubertin et al. 65

Fig. 14. Illustration of function f(x) given by [12].

Fig. 15. Illustration of function F(x) given by [13] and used in the MK model.

The same values of a and m are applied to the other results bentonite. Although bentonite modifies considerably the θ–ψ
presented above. As can be seen in the Figs. 16b–16e, the relationship, the MK model appears to capture this effect.
predicted curves for materials at different void ratios (Figs. 16b
and 16c) and different grain size (Figs. 16d and 16e) show that Discussion
the MK model seems to capture the influence of such factors. As seen in the previous section, there is a fairly good agree-
To check whether the predictive model is also applicable to ment between the predicted WRC and measured values,
experimental data from other sites, the calculated WRC from especially if the intrinsic variability of material properties and
the MK model have been compared with values measured by uncertainty in measuring techniques are taken into account.
others. Figure 17 shows a fairly good agreement with meas- The MK model formulation is simple to use, and the pa-
urements on two silts. rameters are easily obtained. It can be used for descriptive
Figure 18 finally shows the predicted and measured values purposes by adjusting the calculated WRC to the experimental
for a mixture of SI tailings containing 6 and 10% by weight of data, and also for predictive purposes as shown above. In that

© 1998 NRC Canada

66 Can. Geotech. J. Vol. 35, 1998

Fig. 16. Application of the MK model to tailings, with a = 0.006 and m = 0.05.
0.5 0.5
(a) (d)

0.4 0.4
Lab data Lab data
0.3 0.3

0.2 0.2

0.1 0.1
e = 0.802 e = 0.688
0.0 0.0

(b) (e)

MK 0.4
Lab data
Lab data


0.1 0.1
e = 0.695
0.0 e = 0.674
1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000
Lab data



e = 0.746
1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000

regard, it becomes a useful tool for engineering projects where distribution of pores size in a horizontal section and the vertical
a first estimate is often needed for the WRC, or when it is change of pore diameters. For this reason, some pores are not
required that the effect of a change in grain size and porosity saturated when the sample is made wet from a dry state, whereas
on the WRC be anticipated. For tailings, even when modified the same pores can retain capillary water when the process
with bentonite, it appears that the set of constants (a and m) starts from a saturated state and equilibrium is achieved by
proposed here can be used for preliminary calculations. drainage. This hysteresis phenomenon, which affects the water
The MK model retains most elements of the Kovács (1981) retention curve, implies that the θ–ψ relationship is not unique.
original model, but introduces some differences by using a For the mathematical representation, two limiting curves exist,
more general probability function of the pore-size distribution a wetting curve and a draining curve, both having roughly the
for Sc, a new approach for dealing with αk/Dh and hco, and a same shape, with the latter being higher than the former on a
correction factor on Sa. Other modifications could be made to θ – log ψ plot (e.g., Bear 1972; Hillel 1980). Because this phe-
improve the model, such as introducing explicitly the effect of nomenon mainly affects the WRC at ψ ≤ ψr (on the drainage
grain-size distribution on ψa in [2], and including a surface curve), it can be considered that it essentially relates to com-
activity factor in [15] to better account for the influence of ponent Sc of the MK model. Hence, this aspect can be taken
adsorption phenomena (e.g., Mitchell 1993). into account through parameters a, b, and m. Kovács (1981)
Another factor to consider is the hysteresis of the WRC. proposed using average values with his model, to give mean
The pore network being a system of channels with a changing conditions between draining and wetting conditions. He esti-
cross section, the capillary height is influenced by both the mated that a factor of about 2 applied to both a1 (eq. [5]) and

© 1998 NRC Canada

Aubertin et al. 67

Fig. 17. Application of the MK model to silts. Data taken from Fig. 18. Application of the MK model to tailings modified with
Bruch (1993) and Wilson (1990). bentonite. (a) SI with 6% at e = 0.685. (b) SI with 10% at e =
0.5 0.698. (c) SI with 10% at e = 0.809.
Lab data MK
0.3 Lab data


Bruch 1993 0.1
SI 6%
e = 0.690
e = 0.685
MK 0.4
Lab data
Lab data


Wilson 1990 SI 10%
e = 0.695 e = 0.698
0.0 0.0
1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000

b (eq. [2]) for the two limiting curves. It remains to be determined Lab data
how the modified version of the model proposed here can be ad- 0.3
justed for these two limiting conditions. As the authors only con-
ducted drainage-type tests, this aspect will have to be studied later.
The MK model also bears other limitations and uncertain-
ties, such as the fact that the principles behind its formulation
do not allow osmotic pressures to be considered. This may 0.1
SI 10%
limit its applicability when the saturation liquid is different
from pure water. e = 0.809
1 10 100 1000 10 000 10 0000
Nevertheless, at this point, the MK model has already been
used successfully for various practical applications of tailings
management projects, and validation will continue using both
laboratory and field data. Acknowledgments
This work has been possible thanks to a research contract from
Conclusions the MEND/NEDEM program, with a financial contribution
from the Ministère des ressources naturelles du Québec, CAN-
Results of a testing campaign that gave the water retention MET, Itec Mineral, and Lac Mineral/Barrick Gold. The authors
curves (WRC) of tailings from hard-rock mines were presented. also thank the anonymous reviewers and Professor Richard
The experimental results are correlated to the van Genuchten Darling for their valuable technical and editorial comments.
(1980) descriptive model. The air-entry value ψa of the differ- Finally, we thank Madeleine Guillemette, Line Parisien, Hélène
ent materials has been determined according to three different Lalumière, and Lucette de Gagné for their help with the prepa-
methods, including one new approach proposed by the authors. ration of the manuscript, and Antonio Gatien for his help with
A simple equation has been used to estimate ψa from grain size the testing program.
and porosity. This equation is used, together with other com-
ponents, to modify the Kovács (1981) predictive model. The
modified Kovács (MK) model is then used to obtain the entire References
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© 1998 NRC Canada

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