A study has been conducted, using an unsteady three-dimensional Reynolds-averaged Navier-Stokes simulation, to define the effect of impeller-diffuser interaction on the performance of a centrifugal compressor stage. The principal finding from the study was that the most influential aspect of this unsteady interaction was the effect on impeller tip leakage flow. In particular, the unsteadiness due to the upstream potential effect of the diffuser vanes led to larger viscous losses associated with the impeller tip leakage flow. The consequent changes at the impeller exit with increasing interaction were identified as reduced slip, reduced blockage, and increased loss. The first two were beneficial to pressure rise while the third one was detrimental. The magnitudes of the effects were examined using different impeller-diffuser spacings and it was shown that there was an optimal radial gap size for maximum impeller pressure rise. The physical mechanism was also determined: when the diffuser was placed closer to the impeller than the optimum, increased loss overcame the benefits of reduced slip and blockage. The findings provide a rigorous explanation for experimental observations made on centrifugal compressors. The success of a simple flow model in capturing the pressure rise trend indicated that although the changes in loss, blockage and slip were due largely to unsteadiness, the consequent impacts on performance were mainly one-dimensional. The influence of flow unsteadiness on diffuser performance was found to be less important than the upstream effect, by a factor of seven in terms of stage pressure rise in the present geometry. It is thus concluded that the beneficial effects of impeller-diffuser interaction on overall stage performance come mainly from the reduced blockage and reduced slip associated with the unsteady tip leakage flow in the impeller.

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