The effect of three-dimensionality on low Reynolds number flows past a symmetric sudden expansion in a channel was investigated. The geometric expansion ratio of in the current study was 2:1 and the aspect ratio was 6:1. Both experimental velocity measurements and two- and three-dimensional simulations for the flow along the centerplane of the rectangular duct are presented for Reynolds numbers in the range of 150 to 600. Comparison of the two-dimensional simulations with the experiments revealed that the simulations fail to capture completely the total expansion effect on the flow, which couples both geometric and hydrodynamic effects. To properly do so requires the definition of an effective expansion ratio, which is the ratio of the downstream and upstream hydraulic diameters and is therefore a function of both the expansion and aspect ratios. When the two-dimensional geometry was consistent with the effective expansion ratio, the new results agreed well with the three-dimensional simulations and the experiments. Furthermore, in the range of Reynolds numbers investigated, the laminar flow through the expansion underwent a symmetry-breaking bifurcation. The critical Reynolds number evaluated from the experiments and the simulations was compared to other values reported in the literature. Overall, side-wall proximity was found to enhance flow stability, helping to sustain laminar flow symmetry to higher Reynolds numbers in comparison to nominally two-dimensional double-expansion geometries. Lastly, and most importantly, when the logarithm of the critical Reynolds number from all these studies was plotted against the reciprocal of the effective expansion ratio, a linear trend emerged that uniquely captured the bifurcation dynamics of all symmetric double-sided planar expansions.

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