Thermoacoustic instability is the result of a positive coupling between the acoustic field in the duct and the heat release rate fluctuations from the flame. Recently, in several turbulent combustors, it has been observed that the onset of thermoacoustic instability is preceded by intermittent oscillations, which consist of bursts of periodic oscillations amidst regions of aperiodic oscillations. Quantitative analysis of the intermittency route to thermoacoustic instability has been performed hitherto using the pressure oscillations alone. We perform experiments on a laboratory-scale bluff-body-stabilized turbulent combustor with a backward-facing step at the inlet to obtain simultaneous data of acoustic pressure and heat release rate fluctuations. With this, we show that the onset of thermoacoustic instability is a phenomenon of mutual synchronization between the acoustic pressure and the heat release rate signals, thus emphasizing the importance of the coupling between these non-identical oscillators. We demonstrate that the stable operation corresponds to desynchronized aperiodic oscillations, which, with an increase in the mean velocity of the flow, transition to synchronized periodic oscillations. In between these states, there exists a state of intermittent phase synchronized oscillations, wherein the two oscillators are synchronized during the periodic epochs and desynchronized during the aperiodic epochs of their oscillations. Furthermore, we discover two different types of limit cycle oscillations in our system. We notice a significant increase in the linear correlation between the acoustic pressure and the heat release rate oscillations during the transition from a lower-amplitude limit cycle to a higher-amplitude limit cycle. Further, we present a phenomenological model that qualitatively captures all of the dynamical states of synchronization observed in the experiment. Our analysis shows that the times at which vortices that are shed from the inlet step reach the bluff body play a dominant role in determining the behaviour of the limit cycle oscillations.
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