A downhole electric heater, which reduces heat loss along a heat insulation pipe, is a key apparatus used to ignite oil shale underground. Downhole heaters working together with packers can improve the heating efficiency of high-temperature gases, while different packer locations will directly affect the external air temperature of the heater shell and, subsequently, the performance and total cost of the downhole heaters. A device was developed to simulate the external conditions of heater shells at different packer locations. Then, the effects of external air temperature on the performance of a downhole heater with pitches of 50, 160, and 210 mm were experimentally studied. In the test, results indicated that the heater with a packer at its outlet had an accelerated heating rate in the initial stage and decreased temperature in the final stage. Additionally, the lowest heating rod surface temperature and highest comprehensive performance were achieved with minimal irreversible loss and lower total cost when using a downhole electric heater with a packer set at its outlet. In addition, the downhole electric heater with a helical pitch of 50 mm and a packer at its outlet was more effective than other schemes in the high Reynolds number region. These findings are beneficial for shortening the oil production time in oil shale in situ pyrolysis and heavy oil thermal recovery.
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