Natural gas (NG) is an alternative combustible fuel for the transportation sectors due to its clean combustion, small carbon footprint, and, with recent breakthroughs in drilling technologies, increased availability and low cost. Currently, NG is better suited for spark-ignited (SI), as a gasoline replacement in conventional SI engines or as a diesel replacement in diesel engines converted to SI operation. However, the knowledge on the fundamentals of NG flame propagation at conditions representative of modern engines (e.g., at higher compression ratios and/or lean mixtures) is limited. Flame propagation inside an engine can be achieved by replacing the original piston with a see-through one. This study visualized flame activities inside the combustion chamber of an optically-accessible heavy-duty diesel engine retrofitted to NG SI operation to increase the understanding of combustion processes inside such converted engines. Recordings of flame luminosity throughout the combustion period at lean-burn operating conditions indicated that the fully-developed turbulent flame formed from several smaller-scale kernels. These small kernels varied with shapes and locations due to different flow motion around the spark location (including the effect of spark electrodes on the local flow separation), different local temperature, or different energy released in these regions. In addition, the turbulent flame was heavily wrinkled during propagation, despite it was grown from a relatively-circular kernel. Moreover, the intake swirl accelerated the flame propagation process while rotating the turbulent flame during its development. Furthermore, the flame propagation speed reduced dramatically when entering the squish region, while the direction from which the flame first touched the bowl edge changed with individual cycles. The results can help the CFD community to better develop RANS and/or LES simulations of such engines under lean-burn operating conditions.

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