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National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

New Insights into Mechanisms of Combustion Instability in Gas Turbine
Type Combustors
S. R. Chakravarthy
1), *

National Centre for Combustion Research and Development & Department of Aerospace Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai 600036 India
Systematic experiments have been performed in combustors of identical dimensions containing a backward-
facing step, a V-gutter bluff-body, or an annular swirler, to examine their combustion instability characteristics.
The length of the combustor, the axial location of the step/bluff-body/swirler, fuel injection location or upstream
of the flame holder, etc. have been varied. The air and (gaseous) fuel flow rates are widely varied to obtain
acoustically induced blowout conditions as well as onset of transition from low amplitude broadband noise to
high-amplitude discrete tones exhibited by combustion instability. Under most conditions, the onset of
combustion instability is accompanied by shifts in dominant frequency from a constant Helmholtz number to
constant Strouhal number representing a flow-acoustic lock-on. In the case of swirl combustor, this shift occurs
between mixed modes of the combustor, i.e., neither purely acoustic nor purely hydrodynamic modes. Certain
conditions indicate constructive and destructive interferences of this mechanism with equivalence ratio
fluctuations due to fuel injection upstream of the flame stabilization zone. Upstream fuel injection at an
intermediate location between non-premixed and premixed extremes in the swirl combustor clearly shows huge
rise in amplitudes, suggesting flame structure fluctuations as a hitherto unacknowledged mechanism of heat
release fluctuations driving combustion instability.
Keywords: Combustion instability,
1. Introduction

Unsteady and unstable combustion has been a
subject of investigation for long, owing to problems
of noise generation and excitation of acoustic
instabilities that leads to structural damages caused
by enhanced vibrations or heat transfer in
combustors of gas turbines, furnaces, etc. Candel
[1] has reviewed the literature pertaining to different
aspects of combustion dynamics and control. On the
one hand, elementary processes of flame interactions
with flow disturbances in the combustor are
involved [2], and on the other, the role of heat
release fluctuations in the combustion zone on the
acoustic osci llations [3] is equally significant.
One of the important driving mechanisms of
combustion instability has been that due to vortex
shedding, as highlighted by Schadow and Gutmark
[4], who showed that the development of coherent
flow structures and their breakdown into fine-scale
turbulence can lead to periodic heat release. Many
workers have investigated combustor geometries
that include a predominant role for vortex shedding,
such as dump combustors involving axisymmetric
backward-facing step [5-9] and bluff-body flame-
holders [10]. They have deduced the phase
relationship between the vortex roll-up sequence and
the heat release fluctuations under conditions of
excitation of intense oscillations.
Bloxsidge et al. [11] have utilized the observations
of heat release rate fluctuations in terms of the flame
chemiluminescence reported in [10] to predict
regimes of instability of combustor operation.
Dowling [12] extended this to include saturation of
the heat release rate fluctuations depending upon the
instantaneous direction of the flow at the flame-
holder, which leads to prediction of hysteresis and
nonlinear behaviour including limit-cycle oscill-
ations. Similarly, Dowling [13] developed a kinem-
atic model of the flame oscillations with the flame
anchor point fluctuating at the flame-holder
depending upon whether the flame speed
instantaneously exceeded the flow velocity.
Lieuwen et al. [14] point out that the convective and
chemical heat release time scales of the fuel-air
mixture within the combustor may match the
acoustic time scales for excitation of strong acoustic
oscillations, and this could be amplified by
equivalence ratio fluctuations [15] due to the
response of the fuel feed line to the acoustic
oscillations present in the combustion chamber. The
vortex shedding at a location such as the dump plane
in a dump combustor, for instance, would carry the
fuel-air mixture in packets and modulate the heat
release fluctuations. Hubbard and Dowling [16]
have modelled the flame fluctuation in response to
equivalence ratio fluctuations that are coupled to the
acoustic oscillations in the combustor. Lieuwen [17]
has reviewed in detail the flame-acoustic interaction
in the context of modelling of combustion instability
in premixed combustors. Lieuwen [18] has also
reported experimental characterization of limit-cycle
oscillations in a premixed dump combustor,
including examples of transition from stable to
* Corresponding author. Fax: +91-44-22575025
E-mail address:
National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

unstable combustor operation in the form of
supercritical and sub-critical bifurcations.
Recently, Altay et al. [19] have reported experiments
with fuel injection 280 and 930 mm upstream of a
backward-facing step, typically at two air flow
Reynolds numbers, 6500 and 8500. They observe
no significant !' fluctuations to occur at the step with
fuel injection 930 mm upstream, but sufficient
fluctuations with injection 280 mm upstream. They
conclude that, even in the latter case, the !'
fluctuations play a secondary role, with the flame-
vortex interaction being the primary mechanism of
acoustic excitation.
Combustion dynamics of swirl combustors has been
of recent interest [20, 21]. The nature of the shear
layers present in a swirl flow and their interaction
are more complex than in other configurations. It is
well known that a central toroidal recirculation zone
(CTRZ) prevails in swirl flows, which lends itself to
a vortex breakdown under strong swirl conditions,
leading to a precessing vortex core (PVC) with an
associated flame motion. In premixed or partially
premixed systems, the vortex core precession could
be amplified further in the presence of the flame
[20]. In confined flows, a corner recirculation zone
(CRZ) also prevails, which could interact with the
CTRZ/PVC complex under oscillatory conditions.
Such interactions could lead to momentary flame
flashback. Under large expansion conditions, jet
precession occurs along with associated flame
motion, which is different from PVC.
Interaction of combusting swirl flow shear layers
with acoustic oscillations leads to different flame
structure, depending upon the excitation of
longitudinal versus transverse acoustic modes [21].
In the former case, typically at low frequencies, the
effect is more global, leading to flame area
variations. High frequency oscillations of the latter
kind affect the flame locally and impart a limited
effect on flame oscillation [22]. Huang and Yang
[23] have also shown the effect of marginal increase
in temperature or equivalence ratio on effecting a
bifurcation between a stable and an unstable flame
structure. The effect of externally imposed acoustic
oscillations on swirl flames has been studied [24-27]
with a view to measure the flame transfer/describing
function (FTF/FDF) not only for input to linear
stability analyses of combustion instability, but also
to obtain insight into the flame dynamics under
controlled oscillatory conditions.
All the above works are on premixed combustion,
performed in the context of stationary gas turbines
used for power generation, which have stringent
emission control norms, and therefore employ lean
premixed pre-vaporized combustors, but they are
also prone to intense instability problems. Very
little attention is devoted to instabilities in non-
premixed combustion systems such as those
currently adopted in gas turbines for propulsion
applications. Although the general view is that non-
premixed combustion is quite stable, it is not
unconditionally so, however.
Further, almost all the works above focus on
investigations under conditions when the
combustion oscillations are unstable. With a limited
exception of Lieuwen [18] recently, there is no
systematic work on a wide variation of geometric
parameters of the combustor and flow conditions
that span from a regime of low-intensity noise
generation without appreciable acoustic feedback
from the combustion chamber on the combustion
process, to a regime of excitation of high-intensity
discrete tones symptomatic of combustion
instability. The Rayleigh criterion delineates
regimes of unstable combustion from those of stable
combustion, but it is only a necessary condition,
which could be met by a variety and combination of
physical mechanisms. These mechanisms would
gradually vary in predominance and interplay with
each other, leading to a transition from low-
amplitude noise to high-amplitude instability
conditions. A systematic variation would prompt
investigation on the mechanisms that dictate the
onset of instability. The data can also serve to
identify precursors to instability that can be utilized
in actively deploying certain passive control
measures in practical combustion systems.
The present paper discusses experimental results that
have been systematically obtained at this laboratory
on comparable size combustors with different flame-
holding configurations, namely, backward-facing
step, V-gutter bluff-body, and swirl flow. The
details of the combustors are provided in [28-31].
Typically, these have 60 mm-a-side rectangular-
shaped cross-sections. The air-flow Reynolds
numbers vary in the range of 6000-80000 based on
the step height, bluff-body width or swirler diameter,
and inlet air velocity. The equivalence ratio is
widely varied from extremely fuel-lean conditions to
fuel-rich conditions. The fuel injection location is
varied from the flame stabilization zone (nearly non-
premixed) to progressively upstream locations, and
in one case, completely premixed condition.
Based on the above work, this paper presents a few
new mechanisms of combustion instability or
insights into interaction of previously identified
mechanisms. As a starting point, we note that vortex
shedding based combustion instability can be
viewed as a flow-acoustic lock-on phenomenon.
This is because of characteristic frequencies of
intrinsic hydrodynamic instabilities that lead to
vortex shedding, which interact with the duct-
acoustic natural modes. Other mechanisms such as
!' fluctuations do not possess intrinsic characteristic
frequencies and follow the acoustic modes without a
lock-on. When the two mechanisms coexist,
constructive and destructive interferences between
them are observed. A third mechanism that comes
about because of upstream fuel injection is that of
flame structure fluctuations during a cycle of
National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

oscillations, wherein the flame fluctuates from being
nearly a premixed flame to that of a diffusion flame
because of incomplete spatio-temporal fuel-air
mixing also a consequence of !' fluctuations.
Finally, we show time-resolved PIV and high-speed
chemiluminescence that illustrate the mechanism of
vortex shearing at multiple time scales leading to
bursts in pressure oscillations at near-unity
equivalence ratios.

(a) Helmholtz number

(b) Amplitude
Figure 1. Unsteady pressure at different locations in
a backward-facing step combustor with methane
injection at the step.

2. Mechanisms of Combustion Instability
2.1 Flow-acoustic lock-on
Figure 1(a) shows the dominant frequencies
observed in the pressure amplitude spectra of the
sound excited during combustion for different
lengths of the backward-facing step combustor,
plotted in terms of the Helmholtz number. Figure
1(b) shows the corresponding amplitudes. The fuel
is injected at the step in this case. We see that the
frequency trend shifts from a nearly constant trend
to a linearly increasing one at specific Reynolds
number. Correspondingly, the amplitude trend
shows a steep increase when the frequency shift
occurs. This is an indication of flow-acoustic lock-
on between the duct acoustic mode and vortex
shedding. The linearly increasing frequency trend
corresponds to a constant Strouhal number of 0.2
exhibited by the vortex shedding that occurs
downstream of the step. The fuel-air mixing occurs
in this vortex, followed by combustion and hence
heat release. Thus, the fluctuations in the heat
release that excite the acoustic oscillations are
modulated by the vortex shedding process, forcing a
lock-on between the vortex shedding and the duct

(a) Dominant frequency

(b) Amplitude
Figure 2. Unsteady pressure at different locations in
a swirl combustor with LPG injection 120 mm
upstream of the swirler exit plane.
Figure 2, likewise shows a similar trend for the case
of swirl combustor, with the fuel (LPG) injected 120
mm upstream of the swirler exit plane. The
amplitudes in this case are about 2 orders magnitude
greater than in the previous case, and show an abrupt
rise from nearly quiet levels when there is a shift in
the trends of frequency with Reynolds number,
again showing flow-acoustic lock-on. In this case,
both the flow modes and acoustic modes are not
clearly defined, and display mixed modes.
2.2 Competition between vortex shedding and !'
As opposed to the above scenario, Fig. 3 shows a
situation of constructive and destructive interference
between the flow-acoustic lock-on mechanism and
the !' mechanism in terms of ups and downs in the
amplitude when the frequency shift occurs. While
the latter signifies flow-acoustic lock-on, the former
implies the interference between the two
0 10000 20000 30000 40000 50000 60000
Reynolds number based on step height

3 7.5 12 16.5 21 25.5 30
air velocity (m/s)

National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

The above data is for injection 190 mm upstream of
the backward-facing step. The reason for the
conclusion regarding the interference between the
two mechanisms is the observation of high-speed
chemiluminescence images of the flame that shows
the vortex shedding pattern in accordance with the
corresponding fluctuation in the fuel injection and
acoustic velocity at the step, as shown in Fig. 4.

Figure 4. Vortex roll-up observed in the backward-
facing step combustor due to fuel injection upstream
of the step.
Figure 4 shows the flame rolling up along the
shedding vortex during one half of the acoustic cycle
and facing a fuel-lean part of the !' pocket arriving
at the step when it is about to unwrap out of the
vortex as the latter sheds away, causing a local local
minimum in the pressure amplitude with Reynolds
number as observed at one condition in Fig. 3.
3. Flame structure fluctuations
A third mechanism, which has not been advanced
hitherto, is that of flame structure fluctuations.
Figure 4 shows the maximum pressure amplitude
registered for a fixed fuel flow rate for different
combustor lengths, as a function of the upstream
distance from the swirler exit plane where the fuel is

Figure 4. Maximum amplitude as a function of
upstream fuel injection location.
Here, it is noticed that, for the case of maximum
amplitudes observed for the longest combustor, the
amplitude attains a maximum for the partially
premixed case of 50 mm upstream fuel injection
from the swirler exit plane. This is investigated by
means of phase-averaged OH-PLIF, shown in Fig. 5.
With injection at the swirler exit (X
= 0 mm, Fig.
5(a)), the flame is always multi-dimensional as in a
jet flame structure. Fluctuations in the flame
structure are apparent, with the flame being only
partially present at 0 and 180. For X
= 50 mm
(Fig. 5(b)), the flame exhibits a multi-dimensional
structure similar to the above at some phases (e.g.,
0 and 300) and a distinct vortex roll-up at 60 due
to the high amplitude of acoustic oscillations
excited, similar to what is observed for X
= 120 mm
(Fig. 5(c)). At 120, a nearly planar flame is
observed right at the swirler exit plane (left edge of
the image) with the post-flame OH zone, very
similar to the case of 0 of Fig. 5(c). This flame
appears weakened at 180, and pushed out by a
vortex roll-up (dark pattern) at 240 in Fig. 5(b),
resuming the multidimensional structure for another
half of the cycle. The case of X
= 120 mm (Fig.
5(c)), on the other hand, exhibits the nearly planar
flame mentioned above, followed by vortex roll-up
(120) and shedding (180). It appears that the
flame/flow processes contain more than one
frequency of oscillations, so the phase-averaging
does not clearly represent the whole sequence. For
the present purposes, what is clear from Fig. 9,
however, is that the flame for X
= 50 mm, the
intermediate upstream injection location (Fig. 5(b)),
resembles that for X
= 0 (Fig. 5(a)) in some parts of
the cycle and resembles the flame for X
= 120 mm
(Fig. 5(c)) in other parts of the cycle. This indicates
that there is a significant fluctuation in the flame
! '! &!! &'!


:;&##! 69<=:;!+&>8
:;&">! 69<=:;!+"&8
:;&&#! 69<=:;!+"#8
:; >>! 69<=:;!+"?8
Figure 3. Acoustic data: far-upstream injection.
National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

structure itself from being similar to a diffusion
flame to being similar to a premixed flame within a
cycle of oscillations. Considering that this results in
higher amplitudes of acoustic excitation than the
rest, flame structure oscillations need to be
considered as another mechanism of heat release rate
fluctuations causing combustion instability, hitherto
not discussed in the literature explicitly. In this
scenario, it would not be possible to evaluate the
heat release rate fluctuations from flame area
calculations popularly resorted to or along the
fluctuating stoichiometric surface as can be done
with diffusion flames [32, 33]; the full flame
structure needs to be determined.
Figure 5. Phase-averaged OH-PLIF images.
4. Burst pressure oscillations
Figure 6 shows typical burst pattern of pressure
oscillations observed at an equivalence ratio of
0.898 in a premixed dump combustor. The inset
shows the cycle for which high-speed PIV data is
considered. The inset is enlarged and shown in Fig.
7 with instances of high-speed PIV labeled.

Figure 6. Burst pressure oscillations.

Figure 7. Inset in Fig. 6.
Figure 8(a) shows the sequence of velocity vectors
and chemiluminescence images marked 1-8 in Fig. 7
corresponding to the growth in a cycle of a burst.
The vector field shows the sequence of large-scale
vortex roll-up (of the length-scale of the step height)
downstream of the base of the step in the
recirculation zone (marked by the line joining the
loci of the vortex core). The corresponding
chemiluminescence images show the flame rolling
up along with this large-scale vortex. It is clear that
this vortex mode of flow oscillation modulates the
heat release to a high amplitude level, which in turn
excites the pressure oscillation seen growing during
this time segment in Fig. 7. Thus the mechanism of
the growth part for the cycle in the burst is the
vortex combustion, as expected.
However, the cause of the decay is interesting. As
the acoustic amplitude rises, the duct mode gets
amplified (due to its boundary conditions), whose
time scales are shorter. Progressively, small-scale
vortices begin to be shed from the step corner, even
as the large-scale roll-up continues to occur at a
larger time scale. As these small-scale vortices are
shed at the acoustic time-scale (marked by the
dashed line in Fig. 8(b)), they convect in the flow
field around the large-scale vortex, and begin to
shear at the latters edges. In general, the cascading
of small-scale vortices shed at the shorter acoustic
time scale rolling up around the large-scale step-
mode vortex has been termed as collective
interaction [4]. The other aspect of this is the
shearing of the large-scale vortex by the small scales
of sufficient strength (at high acoustic amplitude
following the growth of the burst) that eventually
weakens the large-scale vortex. It is well known
that the flame is a low-pass filter. It smoothens the
wiggles caused by the small-scales, but is modulated
mainly by the large-scale vortex. When the latter is
weakened, the flame can no longer oscillate in an
organized manner, as can be clearly seen at late
times in Fig. 8(b). The flame is the acoustic driver
in this system. With no organized fluctuation, it
cannot excite the acoustic pressure, leading to the
latters decay seen marked 9-16 in Fig. 7. Thus, the
large-scale vortex roll-up is progressively weakened
by shearing action in this time interval (Fig. 8(b)).

Figure 8. Velocity and CH* intensity fields for the
instants marked by +in Fig. 7.
661.62 ms (1)
662.60 ms (2)
663.57 ms (3)
664.55 ms (4)
665.53 ms (5)
666.50 ms (6)
667.48 ms (7)
668.46 ms (8)
672.36 ms (10)
671.38 ms (9)
673.34 ms (11)
674.32 ms (12)
675.29 ms (13)
676.27 ms (14)
677.24 ms (15)
678.22 ms (16)
(a) Instants 1 - 8
(b) Instants 9 - 16







National Conference onI. C. Engine and Combustion (NCICEC 2013)
SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

In this paper, a few different mechanisms of
combustion instability that are not commonly
discussed in the literature are presented. These are
based on systematic experiments on nearly identical
combustors containing a backward-facing step, V-
gutter bluff-body or swirler conducted at this
laboratory. Wide range of geometric and flow
conditions have been varied.
Four different mechanisms have been presented.
The first is the flow-acoustic lock-on, wherein the
dominant frequency of unsteady pressure
oscillations shifts in its trend of constant Helmholtz
number to constant Strouhal number, as the flow
Reynolds number is varied. Accompanying this is a
steep rise in the pressure amplitude. A similar
behaviour is observed in the case of swirl combustor
between modes that are constant in neither
Helmholtz number nor Strouhal number. These are
identified as mixed modes of the system. The
second mechanism is the constructive and
destructive interferences between the flow-acoustic
lock-on due to vortex shedding and equivalence ratio
fluctuations. High-speed chemiluminescence
sequences are shown to demonstrate this
mechanism. The third mechanism is that of flame
structure fluctuations, shown in terms of phase-
averaged OH-PLIF images, wherein the flame
fluctuates from being a premixed flame to a
diffusion flame during a cycle of acoustic
oscillations, when the fuel is injected at an optimal
location upstream of the swirler, for which
maximum amplitude is observed when compared to
at-the swirler or farther upstream fuel injection. The
fourth is the mechanism of pressure burst
oscillations due to interaction of different length
scales of vortices shed at the step, one due to the
preferred mode of vortex shedding and another at
the acoustic frequency, the two vortices shearing
each other to decay a burst in oscillations caused by
heat release from a flame rolling up at the time scale
of the large-scale vortex. These are new insights
into the physical mechanisms that prevail during
different facets of combustion instability.
The National Centre for Combustion Research and
Development is supported by the Department of
Science and Technology, Government of India.
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SVNIT, Surat, India
13-16, December 2013

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