Purdue University Graduate School
Plaehn_2023_Dissertation.pdf (16.58 MB)

Dynamics of Rotating Detonation Combustor Operation through Continuous Geometry Variation

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posted on 2023-12-03, 04:01 authored by Ethan PlaehnEthan Plaehn

Rotating detonation combustors are a developing technology with the potential to successfully integrate pressure gain combustion in to modern propulsion devices. Utilization of propagating detonation waves could increase combustion cycle efficiency and reduce combustor size, resulting in an overall increase in system range or payload-carrying capabilities. However, the sensitivity of rotating detonation combustor operation and performance to geometric features, such as injector configuration or chamber length, still needs to be characterized over a wide range of operating conditions. In addition, the hardware configuration that promotes easy ignition into a coherent detonation operating mode does not always maximize combustor performance, especially at low-loss conditions where feedback between chamber and manifold dynamics can exist. Therefore, a rotating detonation combustor with continuously variable geometry capabilities was designed in order to continuously vary any number of hardware design parameters during combustor testing. Not only does the variable geometry combustor enable rapid characterization of operability sensitivity with minimal hardware swaps, it also enables exploration of hysteresis in performance as the combustor is ignited in one configuration and transitioned to a different geometry while maintaining detonative operation.

The operability of the variable geometry rotating detonation combustor was first characterized with variable fuel injector location. Higher wave speeds were observed at injector locations closest to the oxidizer throat, with decreased wave speed and eventual transition to deflagrative operation occurring at locations farther downstream due to increasing momentum flux ratio. Variation in fuel injection location induced bifurcations in the number of waves, resulting in corresponding changes in wave speed and gross thrust. Hysteresis was observed in these quantities as the direction of injector translation was reversed. Active translation promoted detonative operation of the experiment at conditions and configurations that hitherto operated only in a deflagrative mode with fixed combustor geometry.

Sensitivity of rotating detonation combustor operation and performance to oxidizer injector pressure drop was characterized using continuous variation of the injector area during combustor operation. Propulsive performance of the combustor was evaluated using thrust and equivalent available pressure, relating them back to reactant supply pressures for assessment of combustor pressure gain. An effective reactant supply pressure was developed in order to combine contributions of both fuel and oxidizer manifold pressures to the total pressure of the system so that pressure gain could be accurately calculated. Pressure gain increased during a test as oxidizer injector area was increased and the corresponding manifold pressure was decreased. At larger injector areas, pressure gain decreased as the operating mode of the combustor transitioned from detonation to deflagration, concomitant with reduction of gross thrust. Modeling of injector recovery time revealed that the injector operated in both choked and unchoked regimes, which was used to explain detonation wave number transitions in the experiment. A broadened range of detonative operability enabled by active variation of combustor geometry resulted in higher performance with lower injector pressure drop.

Sensitivity of rotating detonation combustor operation and performance to combustor chamber length was characterized using continuous variation of the chamber length during combustor operation. Specific impulse of the combustor remained relatively constant as chamber length was decreased from its maximum values, proving the practicality of efficient packaging for rotating detonation combustors. A limiting chamber length at which combustion could not longer be supported within the chamber was found to exist for every operating condition, resulting in flame blow-out and performance degradation. Modeling of detonation fill height revealed that relatively low specific impulse measurements could be attributed to unburned reactants exiting the chamber, and a more efficient use of reactants was potentially the cause for improved performance at higher mass flow rates as detonation wave number increased and reactant residence time decreased.

This experiment and the associated analysis has helped further characterize rotating detonation combustor sensitivity to hardware design parameters. The continuously variable geometry capabilities enabled precise identification of geometric parameters that resulted in operating mode transitions. Analysis and modeling of the flow processes within the injector and chamber were used to help explain why these mode transitions occurred, and can be used for future rotating detonation combustor development.








Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Aeronautics and Astronautics

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Carson D. Slabaugh

Additional Committee Member 2

Rohan M. Gejji

Additional Committee Member 3

Stephen D. Heister

Additional Committee Member 4

Carlo Scalo

Additional Committee Member 5

S. Alex Schumaker

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