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Background: Iron oxyhydroxides are commonly found in natural aqueous systems as nanoscale particles, where they can act as effective sorbents for dissolved metals due to their natural surface reactivity, small size and high surface area. These properties make nanoscale iron oxyhydroxides a relevant option for the remediation of water supplies contaminated with dissolved metals. However, natural geochemical processes, such as changes in ionic strength, pH, and temperature, can cause these particles to aggregate, thus affecting their sorption capabilities and remediation potential. Other environmental parameters such as increasing salinity may also impact metal retention, e. g. when particles are transported from freshwater to seawater.

Results: After using synthetic iron oxyhydroxide nanoparticles and nanoparticle aggregates in batch Zn(II) adsorption experiments, the addition of increasing concentrations of chloride (from 0.1 M to 0.6 M) appears to initially reduce Zn (II) retention, likely due to the desorption of outer-sphere zinc surface complexes and subsequent formation of aqueous Zn-Cl complexes, before then promoting Zn(II) retention, possibly through the formation of ternary surface complexes (supported by EXAFS spectroscopy) which stabilize zinc on the surface of the nanoparticles/aggregates. In batch Cu(II) adsorption experiments, Cu(II) retention reaches a maximum at 0.4 M chloride. Copper-chloride surface complexes are not indicated by EXAFS spectroscopy, but there is an increase in the formation of stable aqueous copper-chloride complexes as chloride concentration rises (with CuCl+ becoming dominant in solution at similar to 0.5 M chloride) that would potentially inhibit further sorption or encourage desorption. Instead, the presence of bidentate edge-sharing and monodentate corner-sharing complexes is supported by EXAFS spectroscopy. Increasing chloride concentration has more of an impact on zinc retention than the mechanism of nanoparticle aggregation, whereas aggregation condition is a stronger determinant of copper retention.

Conclusions: Based on these model uptake/retention studies, iron oxyhydroxide nanoparticles show potential as a strategy to remediate zinc-contaminated waters that migrate towards the ocean. Copper retention, in contrast, appears to be optimized at an intermediate salinity consistent with brackish water, and therefore may release considerable fractions of retained copper at higher (e. g. seawater) salinity levels.


This article was originally published in Geochemical Transactions, volume 15, issue 1, in 2014. DOI: 10.1186/1467-4866-15-6


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