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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Geotechnical Laboratory Overview

Laboratory Purpose

Through its unique capabilities and expertise, the Geotechnical Laboratory (GTL) supports the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) Geotechnical Research Program, other disciplines, laboratories, and offices throughout the agency, as well as other organizations and agencies within the transportation community. The core mission of the GTL is to advance the state of the practice of geotechnical engineering in transportation and develop innovative solutions for practical transportation issues.

Laboratory Description

The GTL currently evaluates the material properties of soils and structural backfills; studies the interaction with the environment (e.g., temperature, moisture) and structural elements (e.g., steel, concrete, geosynthetics, timber); assesses geotechnical aspects of pavements; performs advanced numerical modeling of foundation and retaining wall systems; and engages in the instrumentation and remote monitoring of bridges constructed with innovative designs and construction practices. The laboratory partners with various transportation agencies in advancing innovative technologies and solutions.

Recent Accomplishments and Contributions

The GTL currently has many ongoing large-scale and long-term experiments, some dating back to the 1990s, that have formed the basis for many reports, publications, and presentations. These experiments are aimed at improving the code of practice of foundations in transportation structures. The laboratory has provided technical assistance to a number of transportation agencies on a variety of issues, and is currently spearheading a round robin program for the evaluation of large-scale direct shear devices. Some key accomplishments and contributions include the following:

  • Report: Statistical Analysis of Pavement Profiler Data to Evaluate the Bump at the End of the Bridge (FHWA-HRT-21-037)
  • Report: Development of Guidelines for Bearing Resistance of Large Diameter Open-End Steel Piles (FHWA-HRT-20-011)
  • Report: Instrumentation and 5-Year Performance Monitoring of a GRS-IBS in St. Lawrence County, NY (FHWA-HRT-20-040).
  • TechNote: Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil-Integrated Bridge System—Bid Price Analysis and Cost Comparisons with Alternative Foundation Systems (FHWA-HRT-19-024).
  • TechNote: Impact of Initial Density on Strength-Deformation Characteristics of Open-Graded Aggregates (FHWA-HRT-18-048).
  • Report: Design and Construction Guidelines for Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil (GRS) Abutments and Integrated Bridge Systems (IBSs) (FHWA-HRT-17-080).
  • Development of the FHWA Deep Foundation Load Test Database, Version 2 (DFLTD v.2).
  • Report: Strength Characterization of Open-Graded Aggregates for Structural Backfills (FHWA-HRT-15-034).
  • Report: FHWA LTPP Guidelines for Measuring Bridge Approach Transitions Using Inertial Profilers (FHWA-HRT-16-072).
  • Partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), and the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) to sponsor the inaugural Geo-Structural Aspects of Pavements, Railways, and Airfields Conference (GAP-2019).

Laboratory Capabilities

The GTL consists of an indoor testing facility and several unique outdoor testing facilities, including the Pavement Test Facility. The indoor facility can conduct basic and specialized index tests for characterizing soils, aggregates, nontraditional backfill materials, and geosynthetics for both research studies and field production projects. The outdoor facilities consist of two test pits to perform large-scale foundation experiments and a strong floor to test earth-retaining structures. In addition, the laboratory functions extend throughout Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) with several full- and large-scale geosynthetic reinforced soil (GRS) structures constructed to evaluate their long-term performance under realistic loading conditions. For field work, the GTL has the ability to prepare and install remote automated field instrumentation to monitor and evaluate performance of bridges, pavements, and slopes.

Laboratory Services

Some of the basic and specialized laboratory services include, but are not limited to:

  • Forensic analysis
  • Materials characterization
  • Technical assistance
  • Research guidance
  • Compaction testing
  • Automated data collection system installation and monitoring
  • Large- and small-scale load tests for structural foundations
  • Soil constitutive modeling
  • Risk assessment
  • Numerical analyses
  • Quality assurance

Current activities and services performed by the GTL are to: 1) study the material properties of soil and structural backfills for pavement and earth-retaining structures; 2) study drainage of pavement bases and subbases; 3) study geotechnical aspects of pavements; 4) evaluate erosion resistance of stream beds based on soil characteristics; 5) advance the state of the practice of geotechnical instrumentation and remote automated systems; 6) assess the long-term performance and resilience of geotechnical assets; 7) evaluate and advance innovative testing methods; and 8) perform load and resistance factor design (LRFD) calibrations.

Laboratory Equipment

Indoor Laboratory

Figure 1. Dust-free Laboratory Space with Advanced Materials Characterization Devices.

a. Figure 1. This is a photo that shows a large-scale direct shear device under operation. The bottom box is displacement allowing some of the aggregate being tested to show in the figure.    b. This photo shows a side view of the second large-scale direct shear device in the laboratory.
Figure 2. Large-Scale Direct Shear Devices.

The indoor facility has equipment to characterize soil and aggregate materials for both research studies and demonstration projects. Special equipment includes two 12-inch direct shear devices, a 6-inch diameter triaxial unit, a 6-inch resilient modulus device, an erosion function apparatus, and a 20-kip universal testing machine. The indoor facility also has a variety of fixtures and auxiliary equipment to conduct a variety of specialized tests to include the evaluation of innovative instrumentation for geotechnical applications.

Figure. 3 Erosion Function Apparatus (EFA) along with Shelby Tube Extruder. 

Figure 2. Strength Testing of Geosynthetics
Figure 4. Strength Testing of Geosynthetics.

Figure 3. This photo shows a sample being tested in a large 6-inch diameter triaxial chamber within a load testing device equipped with a load cell. The device is connected to two water pumps through clear plastic tubes and controlled with a data collection computer.
Figure 5. Large Diameter Triaxial Device.


Figure 4. This image shows the resilient modulus device in the lab, with a computer monitor and other equipment on the desk nearby.
Figure 6. Resilient Modulus Device.


Figure 5. This is a photo showing a side view of frictional connectional testing. Concrete masonry units are stacked with a layer of geotextile sandwiched in between and attached to a clamp that is attached to a worm gear. Dead weight and lead ingots are placed on top of the concrete masonry units.
Figure 7. Frictional Connection Testing: Side View.


Figure 6. The photo shows hollow core concrete masonry units (CMU) infilled with No. 57 stone.  A layer of geotextile extends out from between the CMU blocks. The geotextile is clamped to the metal bar and connected to the worm gear driven with an electric motor.  The displacement and pullout force of the frictionally connected geotextile is measured with 2 linear variable differential transformers and a load cell, respectively.
Figure 8. Frictional Connection Testing: Top-Down.


Figure 7. This is a photo showing a calibration reaction assembly with two courses of concrete masonry blocks stacked up and an inflated airbag pressed against them from the top.
Figure 9. Calibration Reaction Assembly.


Figure 8. This is a photo showing a tactile pressure sensor between a layer of geotextile and concrete masonry units.
Figure 10. Evaluation of Pressure-Sensor Technology.


Figure 9. This is a photo showing a front view of a standard direct shear device. There are controllers on the bottom with the shear box on the top, connected to a motor and a load cell.
Figure 11. Standard Direct Shear Device.

Figure 12. Soil Resistivity Measurement Device.

Figure 10. This image shows a close-up of the constant/falling head permeameter.
Figure 13. Constant/Falling Head Permeameter.


Figure 11. This image shows the walk-in environmental chamber with metal shelves throughout.
Figure 14. Walk-in Environmental Chamber.

Outdoor Laboratories: Test Pits

One of the outdoor laboratory facilities consists of 2 test pits that are 18 feet wide, 23 feet long, and 18 feet deep. The pits can be filled with various soil types for modeled shallow or deep foundation experiments and have also been used to conduct full-scale wall experiments and to test the tension capacity of ground anchors. The pits have reinforced concrete walls, sump pumps to control water-table levels, and anchorage systems to provide reaction loads for experiments. The pits have a separate building to store the load-test equipment and a control room for the data-acquisition systems.

Figure 12. Top-down view showing into the outdoor geotechnical sand pits. A mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) shoring wall is on one side and a green lightweight vibratory compactor is shown on top of the sand.
Figure 15. Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) Shoring Wall Experiment.


Figure 13. The image shows two men working in a sand pit. To the left of the pit is a piece of heavy equipment that is drilling steel anchors into the pit.
Figure 16. Helical Anchor Tensile Tests.

Outdoor Laboratories: Full-Scale Test Sites

The Laboratory includes two additional outdoor test sites where full-scale bridge piers, abutments, and retaining wall structures were constructed for research and testing purposes. The following are a few examples of full-scale experiments at these outdoor test sites to illustrate the capabilities of TFHRC to lead the advancement of the state of the art and state of the practice.

Figure 14. This is a photo showing a tested geosynthetic reinforced soil pier. Vegetation is growing out from the top. A trailer and trees are shown in the background.
Figure 17. Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil (GRS) Test Pier.


Figure 15. Long-range view of the FHWA prototype geosynthetic reinforced soil integrated bridge system. The facing modular block is decorative with FHWA inscribed and a road shown. A tunnel through the bridge and underneath a staircase is also depicted.
Figure 18. Prototype Geosynthetic Reinforced Soil - Integrated Bridge
System (GRS-IBS).

Figure 16. This photo shows four GRS piers with concrete masonry units (CMUs) on a concrete pad. Two large concrete I-beams are positioned on top of the GRS piers.  The beams have salt spray catch barriers attached to them.
Figure 19. Long-Term Performance of GRS Test Piers.

Outdoor Laboratories: Strong Floor

The Geotechnical Laboratory has an outdoor strong floor that is also available for the construction and testing of full-scale geotechnical features on a rigid concrete platform. The spacing of the anchorage locations is 3-by-3 feet, each with a 300-kip capacity similar to the Structures Laboratory to allow a variety of load fixtures and arrangements.

Figure 17. This is a photo showing the outdoor concrete strong floor. A pallet of concrete masonry units and some helical anchors lie on top.
Figure 20. Outdoor Strong Floor.


Figure 18. This photo shows a GRS abutment experiment built with a concrete masonry units (CMU) facing element on the outdoor strong floor. The CMU blocks have a zigzag pattern in different colors.  A concrete footing is positioned on top near the edge of the face of the GRS abutment with five hollow core hydraulic jacks on top. The hydraulic jacks are connected to load cells. Scaffolding flanks both sides of the GRS abutment experiment and reference beams are supported on the scaffolding to measure vertical deformations.
Figure 21. National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) 12-59 Experiment on the Strong Floor.

Figure 19. Long-Term Performance of GRS Abutments with Various Geometries on the Outdoor Strong Floor.
Figure 22. Long-Term Performance of GRS Abutments with Various Geometries on the Outdoor Strong Floor.

Field Instrumentation

The Geotechnical Laboratory also calibrates many different types of typical and advanced geotechnical instrumentation and develops data acquisition systems for installation in the field. Recent installations have included pressure cells, strain gauges, tactile pressure sensors, in-place inclinometers, piezometers, water content reflectometers, and survey targets. Various projects, including evaluation of bridge abutments and monitoring of pavement and slope conditions, are currently underway, some for as long as more than 5 years.

Figure 20. Pressure cell installation in Sheffield, MA.
Figure 23. Pressure cell installation in Sheffield, MA.


Figure 21. Installation of automated MEMS-based accelerometer sensors and piezometers in Denali National Park, AK.
Figure 24. Installation of automated MEMS-based accelerometer sensors and piezometers in Denali National Park, AK.


Figure 22. Solar powered remote data acquisition system in St. Lawrence, NY.
Figure 25. Solar-powered remote data acquisition system in St. Lawrence, NY.