The primary focus of this paper is to investigate the effect of rotor tip gap size on how the rotor unsteady tip clearance flow structure changes in a low speed one and half stage axial compressor at near stall operation (for example, where maximum pressure rise is obtained). A Large Eddy Simulation (LES) is applied to calculate the unsteady flow field at this flow condition with both a small and a large tip gaps. The numerically obtained flow fields at the small clearance matches fairly well with the available initial measurements obtained at the Johns Hopkins University with 3-D unsteady PIV in an index-matched test facility which renders the compressor blades and casing optically transparent. With this setup, the unsteady velocity field in the entire flow domain, including the flow inside the tip gap, can be measured. The numerical results are also compared with previously published measurements in a low speed single stage compressor (Maerz et al. ). The current study shows that, with the smaller rotor tip gap, the tip clearance vortex moves to the leading edge plane at near stall operating condition, creating a nearly circumferentially aligned vortex that persists around the entire rotor. On the other hand, with a large tip gap, the clearance vortex stays inside the blade passage at near stall operation.
With the large tip gap, flow instability and related large pressure fluctuation at the leading edge are observed in this one and a half stage compressor. Detailed examination of the unsteady flow structure in this compressor stage reveals that the flow instability is due to shed vortices near the leading edge, and not due to a three-dimensional separation vortex originating from the suction side of the blade, which is commonly referred to during a spike-type stall inception. The entire tip clearance flow is highly unsteady. Many vortex structures in the tip clearance flow, including the sheet vortex system near the casing, interact with each other. The core tip clearance vortex, which is formed with the rotor tip gap flows near the leading edge, is also highly unsteady or intermittent due to pressure oscillations near the leading edge and varies from passage to passage. For the current compressor stage, the evidence does not seem to support that a classical vortex breakup occurs in any organized way, even with the large tip gap. Although wakes from the IGV influence the tip clearance flow in the rotor, the major characteristics of rotor tip clearance flows in isolated or single stage rotors are observed in this one and a half stage axial compressor.