It is well known that tip flow unsteadiness has profound effects on both performance and stability of axial compressors. A number of numerical simulations have been performed in transonic compressors to uncover the nature of tip flow unsteadiness. From this research, tip flow unsteadiness can be attributed to many factors, such as the movement of the primary and secondary leakage flow, the interaction between shock and vortex, and the tip leakage vortex breakdown. However, no final conclusion has yet been reached on this matter. The current investigation is carried out to explore the origin of tip flow unsteadiness from the perspective of the evolution and development of tip leakage vortex breakdown.

In this paper, unsteady RANS simulations have been performed to investigate the fluid dynamic processes in a tip-critical transonic compressor, NASA Rotor 35. A vortex core visualization method based on an eigenvector method is introduced as an important tool to identify the vortex arising from tip leakage flow. As the flow rate varies, three critical operating points with distinctive features of flow unsteadiness are observed.

At the first critical operating point, bubble-type breakdown occurs, and gives rise to a weak unsteadiness with high frequency in the rotor passage due to the oscillation of the recirculation region induced by the tip leakage vortex breakdown.

At the second critical operating point, the vortex breakdown has transformed from bubble-type to spiral-type, which leads to the frequency of the pressure oscillation reduced almost by half and the amplitude increased significantly.

At the third critical operating point, a new vortex that is perpendicular to the pressure surface comes into being in the tip region, which leads to a prominent pressure oscillation of the tip flow and another jump in amplitude.

As a result, the evolution and development of tip leakage vortex breakdown are closely related to the tip flow unsteadiness of the investigated rotor.

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