Impact of Fuel and Oxidizer Composition on Premixed Flame Stabilization in Turbulent Swirling Flows: Dynamics and Scaling

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The world relies on fossil fuels as its main energy source (86.7% in 1973, 81.7% in 2012). Several factors including the abundance of resources and the existing infrastructure suggest that this is likely to continue in the near future (potentially 75% in 2040). Meanwhile climate change continues to be a pressing concern that calls for the development of low CO2 energy systems. Among the most promising approaches are pre-combustion capture technologies, e.g., coal gasification and natural gas reforming that produce hydrogen-rich fuels. Another approach is oxy-combustion in which air is replaced by a mixture of O2/CO2/H2O as the oxidizer stream. However, modern gas turbines have been optimized to operate on methane-air combustion and several challenges, notably thermo-acoustic instability, arise when using other fuels or oxidizers because of their different thermochemical and transport properties. While these phenomena constitute a major challenge under conventional operations, using hydrogen-rich fuels or CO2-rich oxidizer exacerbates the problem by modifying the combustor stability map in ways that are not well understood. In this thesis, we identify combustion modes most prone to dynamics, predict the onset of thermo-acoustic instability over a wide range of fuel and oxidizer compositions, and define parameters that can scale the data. To this end, a combination of experimental and numerical tools were deployed. We carried out a series of experiments in an optically accessible laboratory-scale swirl-stabilized combustor typical of those found in modern gas turbines, using high-speed chemiluminescence to examine the flame macrostructure; high-speed Particle Image Velocimetry and OH Planar Laser Induced Fluorescence to probe the flow and flame microstructure. Numerical simulations were used to complement experiments and examine the complex three-dimensional two-way interaction between the flame and the turbulent swirling flow. Experimental data were used to construct the stability maps for different CH4-H2 mixtures and analyze the dynamic flame macrostructures and their transitions. A comparison with acoustically uncoupled combustion shows that the onset of thermo-acoustic instability is concomitant with a specific transition associated with the intermittent appearance of the flame in the outer recirculation zone (ORZ) and stabilization along the outer shear layer (forming between the swirling jet and the ORZ, as revealed by the PIV-PLIF data). The sudden onset of large amplitude limit cycle oscillations and the observed hysteresis suggest the existence of a sub-critical Hopf bifurcation typically characterized by a bistable or “triggering” zone; the flame intermittency in the ORZ can potentially provide the disturbance required to trigger these oscillations. Using a dual-camera method to track chemiluminescence in space and time, this flame transition was found to originate from a reacting kernel that detaches from the inner shear layer flame (forming between the jet and the vortex breakdown zone), reaching the ORZ and spinning at a specific frequency; its characteristic Strouhal number is independent of the Reynolds number and the fuel/oxidizer, only a function of the swirl strength. We propose a new Karlovitz number based criterion that defines the transition on a flow time – flame time space, the former being the inverse of the spinning frequency and the latter being the flame extinction strain rate. According to this scaling, the flame survives in the ORZ if and when it can overcome the region’s bulk strain rate. This criterion is valid over a wide range of operating, fuel and oxidizer composition, covering a wide range of fast to slow chemistry scenarios. Given the role of this flame transition in triggering the instability, the same criterion is applicable to predicting the onset of thermo-acoustics. The interaction of the turbulent swirling flow with the flame is further examined using large eddy simulations. Numerical simulations show that the experimentally observed large scale flame structures along the inner shear layer are due to a helical vortex core that originates at the swirler’s centerbody. This vortical structure stays aligned with the centerline in the combustor upstream section, but bends and reaches the inner shear layer-stabilized flame around the sudden expansion where it causes the flame wrinkling. We propose that the flame kernel igniting the ORZ/ OSL observed in the experiment may be related to the interaction between the helical vortical structure and the outer shear layer.