A numerical study of unsteady tip leakage flow in an isolated axial compressor rotor is presented, aiming at clarifying the originating flow mechanism of this unsteady phenomenon. First, CFD simulations utilizing a three-dimensional, time-accurate, Reynolds-averaged Navier-Stokes solver demonstrates that the tip leakage flow pattern, which manifests itself as an interacting cross- and through-flow in the tip region, can become periodically oscillatory in a range of operating conditions. A flow mechanism is then clarified to explain this unsteady flow phenomenon at its onset that this periodic flow oscillation is a result of dynamic balance, as opposed to static balance, between two counter-acting driving “forces”. One such “force” is the aerodynamic loading of the blades, i.e. the pressure difference across the pressure and suction sides of the compressor blades created by the main through flow. Its counter-acting “force” is the unloading of the blades, i.e. the reduction of the pressure difference caused by the tip leakage cross flow that originates from the pressure side, rushes into the suction side through the tip clearance. At operating conditions in which both “forces” are strong and in the same order, their static balance will be broken. While a larger blade loading creates a stronger tip leakage flow, the tip leakage flow tends to diminish itself because its accompanying effect is to unload the blade. Since the weaker tip leakage flow cannot overcome the ability of the main through flow to recover the original aerodynamic loading for the blade, the whole process restarts and periodically oscillatory tip leakage flow forms. Furthermore, a dimensionless analysis shows that the onset of the observed unsteadiness is conditioned by the tip leakage flow, which can or cannot reach the neighboring blade before mixing with the main flow.

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