Measurement of Moisture Content and Density of Soil Masses Using Radioactivity Methods

Irving Goldberg, L. J. Trescony, J. S. Campbell Jr. and G. J. Whyte
University of California

Abstract: This paper deals with the application of methods involving the scattering of neutrons and gamma rays to the measurement of moisture content and density of granular materials. The measurement of moisture content is based on the principle that when fast neutrons emitted from a radioactive source collide with hydrogen atoms they are slowed down to a much greater extent than by collisions with other atoms. The number of slow neutrons thus produced is a measure of the number of hydrogen atoms present in the vicinity of the source. Water is the principal contributor of hydrogen atoms in a soil medium. A probe, containing a source of fast neutrons and a slow neutron detector, is inserted into the soil. The probe is connected by a cable to a suitably calibrated scaling instrument, and the moisture content determined from the count rate.

The density of a soil is measured with a probe that is similar but provided with a source and a detector of gamma radiation. The gamma rays emitted from this source are scattered by collisions with electrons of atoms in their path. The higher the density of the surrounding medium, the greater the scattering. In the range of densities normally occurring in soils, greater scattering results in fewer gamma rays returning to the detector. Thus, the density of the medium can also be related to the count rate obtained with the scaling instrument.

The advantages of the radioactivity methods are that continuous or repeated measurements of moisture content and density at any desired depth can be made, and that measurements are integrated over a large volume of soil, so that representative values are obtained. In addition, water may be detected in the solid or vapor states as well as in the liquid state. The soil undergoes a minimum of disturbance because the probe is lowered into an access tube slightly greater than 1 inch in diameter. Measurements can be made in a short time; once the access tube has been placed, it takes an average of about six minutes to determine both moisture content and density at a given depth. The instruments are not influenced by ordinary temperature changes. The method appears to be relatively independent of soil type, so that a single calibration curve for moisture content, and one for density, may be applicable to a wide range of materials.

A description of the theory of scattering of neutrons and gamma rays is included in this report as well as a discussion of the various types of sources and detectors which can be employed in the procedure. Field and laboratory tests utilizing these instruments are described, and the accuracy of test results discussed.

It is concluded that application of this method will provide a rapid, simple and accurate means for measuring moisture content and density of soils or similar granular materials. On this basis, recommendations for future research and more extensive applications of the method are reviewed.

Clays and Clay Minerals; 1954 v. 3; no. 1; p. 516-548; DOI: 10.1346/CCMN.1954.0030142
© 1954, The Clay Minerals Society
Clay Minerals Society (www.clays.org)