Multiple pixel-scale soil water retention curves quantified by neutron radiography

M. Kang, E. Perfect, C. L. Cheng, H. Z. Bilheux, J. Lee, J. Horita, J. M. Warren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


The soil water retention function is needed for modeling multiphase flow in porous media. Traditional techniques for measuring the soil water retention function, such as the hanging water column or pressure cell methods, yield average water retention data which have to be modeled using inverse procedures to extract relevant point parameters. In this study, we have developed a technique for directly measuring multiple point (pixel-scale) water retention curves for a repacked sand material using 2-D neutron radiography. Neutron radiographic images were obtained under quasi-equilibrium conditions at nine imposed basal matric potentials during monotonic drying of Flint sand at the High Flux Isotope Reactor (HFIR) Cold Guide (CG) 1D beamline at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. All of the images were normalized with respect to an image of the oven dry sand column. Volumetric water contents were computed on a pixel by pixel basis using an empirical calibration equation after taking into account beam hardening and geometric corrections. Corresponding matric potentials were calculated from the imposed basal matric potential and pixel elevations. Volumetric water content and matric potential data pairs corresponding to 120 selected pixels were used to construct 120 point water retention curves. Each curve was fitted to the Brooks and Corey equation using segmented non-linear regression in SAS. A 98.5% convergence rate was achieved resulting in 115 estimates of the four Brooks and Corey parameters. A single Brooks and Corey point water retention function was constructed for Flint sand using the median values of these parameter estimates. This curve corresponded closely with the point Brooks and Corey function inversely extracted from the average water retention data using TrueCell. Forward numerical simulations performed using HYDRUS 1-D showed that the cumulative outflows predicted using the point Brooks and Corey functions from both the direct (neutron radiography) and inverse (TrueCell) methods were in good agreement with independent measurements of cumulative outflow determined with a transducer. Our results indicate that neutron radiography can be used to quantify the point water retention curve of homogeneous mineral particles. Further research will be needed to extend this approach to more heterogeneous porous media.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-8
Number of pages8
JournalAdvances in Water Resources
StatePublished - Mar 2014


  • Neutron radiography
  • Point water retention curves
  • Quantification


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