Garth Ornelas

Garth Ornelas

Years participated in RESESS:

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An Overview

Major: Physics
Academic Affiliation: Southwestern University
Research Mentors: John McCartney
Writing Mentor: Jenny Nakai


At a young age my obsession with the physical phenomena of our world spurred an interest in the outdoors and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. This same path led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in physics in order to gain a broad understanding of our universe so as to discover a more specific field of study to pursue in graduate school. My research at RESESS used a large centrifuge to study the hydraulic properties of an unsaturated silt layer. The centrifuge served as a catalyst in the water drainage process and provided data about the soil water retention curve in a matter of days as opposed to the months it would take using traditional methods.


This study involves an analysis of water drainage from an initially saturated silt layer in a centrifuge permeameter to evaluate the hydraulic properties of the soil layer in unsaturated conditions up to the point where the water phase becomes discontinuous. These properties include the soil water retention curve (SWRC) and the hydraulic conductivity function (HCF). The hydraulic properties of unsaturated silt are used in soil-atmosphere interaction models that take into account the role of infiltration and evaporation of water from soils due to atmospheric interaction. These models are often applied in slope stability analyses, landfill cover design, aquifer recharge analyses, and agricultural engineering. The hydraulic properties are also relevant to recent research concerning geothermal heating and cooling, as they can be used to assess the insulating effects of soil around underground heat exchangers. This study employs a high-speed geotechnical centrifuge to increase the self-weight of a compacted silt specimen atop a filter plate. Under a centrifuge acceleration of N times earth’s gravity, the concept of geometric similitude indicates that the water flow process in a small-scale soil layer will be similar to those in a soil layer in the field that is N times thicker. The centrifuge acceleration also results in an increase in the hydraulic gradient across the silt specimen, which causes water to flow out of the pores following Darcy’s law. The drainage test was performed until the rate of liquid water flow out of the soil layer slowed to a negligible level, which corresponds to the transition point at which further water flow can only occur due to water vapor diffusion following Fick’s law. The data from the drainage test in the centrifuge were used to determine the SWRC and HCF at different depths in the silt specimen, which compared well with similar properties, defined using other laboratory tests. The transition point at which liquid water flow stopped (and Darcy’s law is no longer valid) was at a relatively high degree of saturation of 0.8. This finding is important as many water flow analyses in the literature assume that Darcy’s law is valid over a much wider range of degrees of saturation, an error that potentially may lead to overestimates of water flow in unsaturated soil layers.