The majority of recent stationary gas turbine combustors employ swirling flows for flame stabilization. The swirling flow undergoes vortex breakdown (VB) and exhibits a complex flow field including zones of recirculating fluid and regions of high shear intensities. Often, self-excited helical flow instabilities, which manifest in a precession of the vortex core, are found in these flows and may influence the combustion process in beneficial and adverse ways. In the present study, we investigate the occurrence and shape of self-excited hydrodynamic instabilities and their impact on heat release fluctuations and mixing characteristics over a wide range of operating conditions. We employ high-speed stereoscopic particle image velocimetry (S-PIV) and simultaneous OH*-chemiluminescence imaging to resolve the flow velocities and heat release distribution, respectively. The results reveal four different flame shapes: A detached annular flame, a long trumpet shaped flame, a V flame, and a very short flame anchored near the combustor inlet. The flame shapes were found to closely correlate with the reactivity of the mixture. Highly steam-diluted or very lean flames cause a detachment, whereas hydrogen fuel leads to very short flames. The detached flames feature a helical instability, which, in terms of frequency and shape, is similar to the isothermal case. A complete suppression of the helical structure is found for the V flame. Both the trumpet shaped flame and the very short flame feature helical instabilities of different frequencies and appearances. The phase-averaged OH*-chemiluminescence images show that the helical instabilities cause large-scale heat release fluctuations. The helical structure of the fluctuations is exploited to use a tomographic reconstruction technique. Furthermore, it is shown that the helical instability significantly enhances the mixing between the emanating jet and the central recirculation zone.

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