zero valent iron

What is zero-valent iron?

Zero valent iron (ZVI) is a highly reactive form of iron that lacks any positive oxidation state, commonly referred to as “zero-valent.” It is an engineered material that has gained significant attention and application in various environmental remediation techniques. ZVI consists of fine particles or granules of pure iron with a high surface area to volume ratio, which enhances its reactivity.

ZVI’s reactivity arises from its ability to undergo redox reactions, where it can transfer or donate electrons to other compounds. This characteristic makes it effective in the degradation and removal of a wide range of pollutants. When ZVI comes into contact with certain contaminants, such as chlorinated solvents, heavy metals, or organic compounds, it initiates a series of reactions that lead to their transformation or immobilization.

In environmental remediation, ZVI is commonly used in a process called reductive dechlorination. In this process, ZVI reacts with chlorinated solvents, such as trichloroethylene (TCE) or perchloroethylene (PCE), removing the chlorine atoms and converting them into harmless chloride ions. This reaction effectively degrades the contaminants, reducing their negative environmental impact.

ZVI is also employed in groundwater and wastewater treatment for the removal of heavy metals. The iron particles act as a reducing agent, facilitating the conversion of toxic metal ions, such as chromium or arsenic, into less mobile and less toxic forms. This process, known as precipitation or co-precipitation, allows for the subsequent removal of these metals from the water.

Moreover, ZVI can assist in the degradation of organic compounds, including various industrial pollutants and even some persistent organic pollutants (POPs). By providing electrons to the target compounds, ZVI promotes their reduction, leading to the breakdown of complex molecules into simpler, less harmful substances. This has proven effective in the treatment of contaminated soils, sediments, and groundwater.

The reactivity of ZVI can be influenced by several factors, including particle size, surface area, and the presence of other substances or coatings. Ongoing research focuses on optimizing ZVI’s properties to enhance its performance and expand its application in environmental remediation and water treatment.

The Role of Zero Valent Iron in Groundwater Remediation

ZVI is now commonly used with in situ chemical reduction (ISCR), a technique to remediate soil and groundwater in place (i.e. in situ) rather than by removal. This is a similar to the mirror process of in situ chemical oxidation (ISCO), another commonly used environmental remediation technique.

There are a number of ways that ZVI is used in contaminated sites. The larger particle sizes are often mixed with sand and placed in trenches to create what is referred to as a permeable reactive barrier. With this method, groundwater will run through the barrier wall, the contaminants will react with the zero valent iron, and this will result in a decrease in the contaminants.

The other method in which ZVI is most commonly used for groundwater remediation is direct injection. In this technique, micron and nano-scale zero valent iron are generally injected in a liquid slurry, often with water and other reagents – and sometimes it is mixed with a carbon source, such as emulsified vegetable oil (referred to as eZVI). This slurry is pumped into holes which are drilled directly into the contaminated soil and groundwater.

Characteristics of Zero Valent Iron in Remediation Processes

Zero valent iron (ZVI) is a widely used material in groundwater remediation due to its unique characteristics and reactivity. Some of the key characteristics of zero valent iron in remediation are:

Reductive capacity:

Zero valent iron has a strong reductive capacity, meaning it can donate electrons to facilitate reduction-oxidation (redox) reactions. This characteristic allows ZVI to effectively break down and transform various contaminants into less harmful forms through reduction processes.

Reactivity with a wide range of contaminants:

Zero valent iron exhibits reactivity with a broad spectrum of contaminants, including chlorinated solvents (e.g., trichloroethylene), heavy metals (e.g., chromium, arsenic), nitrate, and organic compounds. This versatility makes ZVI suitable for addressing multiple types of contamination in groundwater.

Longevity and persistence:

Zero valent iron has a relatively long lifespan in subsurface environments. Once emplaced, it can persist for an extended period, providing a sustained reductive capacity for contaminant degradation. This characteristic allows ZVI to provide long-term remedial effects.

High surface area and reactivity:

ZVI is typically applied in the form of small particles or granules, which offer a high surface area-to-volume ratio. The increased surface area enhances the contact between ZVI and contaminants, promoting efficient contaminant removal and degradation.

In-situ applicability:

Zero valent iron can be used in in-situ remediation, where it is injected directly into the subsurface to treat contaminated groundwater. This characteristic allows for targeted and cost-effective remediation, minimizing the need for excavation and off-site treatment.

Lack of significant byproducts:

The reductive nature of ZVI leads to the breakdown of contaminants into simpler, less harmful compounds. In many cases, the byproducts of ZVI-mediated reactions are non-toxic or more easily biodegradable, reducing the potential for secondary contamination.

Compatibility of ZVI with other remediation methods:

Zero valent iron can be combined with other remediation techniques to enhance effectiveness. It can serve as a reactive barrier, enhancing the treatment of contaminants as groundwater flows through the ZVI zone. Additionally, ZVI can be used as a catalyst or electron donor in conjunction with other processes like bioremediation.

These characteristics make zero valent iron a valuable tool in groundwater remediation, providing an effective and versatile solution for the treatment of various contaminants. Of course it is important to consider site-specific conditions and consult with environmental professionals to determine the most appropriate remediation approach for a given situation.

Remediation Technologies and Zero Valent Iron

Zero valent iron (ZVI) is just one of many remediation technologies available, and its effectiveness and suitability depend on the specific site characteristics and contaminants involved. Here’s a comparison of ZVI with some other common remediation technologies:

Pump-and-treat systems:

Pump-and-treat is a traditional groundwater remediation method where contaminated groundwater is extracted from wells, treated above ground, and then reinjected or discharged. ZVI can be used as a reactive media in pump-and-treat systems to enhance contaminant removal. ZVI offers advantages such as its reductive capacity and versatility, but it may require regular replacement or maintenance due to potential fouling or passivation.

In-situ chemical oxidation (ISCO):

ISCO involves injecting chemical oxidants into the subsurface to chemically degrade contaminants. It is effective for treating a wide range of organic contaminants. ZVI can complement ISCO by providing a reductive environment to neutralize any remaining oxidants, thus preventing their migration and potential adverse effects.


Bioremediation utilizes microorganisms to degrade or transform contaminants into less harmful substances. It is particularly effective for organic contaminants. ZVI can enhance bioremediation by providing a source of electrons for microbial metabolism or creating a reducing environment that promotes the growth and activity of anaerobic bacteria.

Electrochemical remediation:

Electrochemical methods involve applying an electric current to facilitate contaminant removal through electrochemical reactions. ZVI can be used as an electrode material in electrochemical systems, enhancing contaminant removal through both reductive and oxidative processes.


Phytoremediation utilizes plants to uptake, stabilize, or degrade contaminants. While ZVI is not directly involved in phytoremediation, it can be used in combination with plants to enhance contaminant degradation. The reductive environment created by ZVI can support the growth of plants and promote their rhizospheric microbial activity.

It’s important to note that each remediation technology has its strengths and limitations. The selection of the most appropriate technology depends on factors such as the type and extent of contamination, site conditions, regulatory requirements, and cost-effectiveness. Often, a combination of different technologies may be employed synergistically to achieve optimal remediation outcomes. Site-specific assessments and expert guidance are crucial in determining the most suitable remediation approach for a particular scenario.

Difference Between Nano-scale and Micron-scale ZVI

The main difference between nano-scale zero valent iron (ZVI) and micron-scale ZVI lies in their particle sizes. Nano-scale ZVI refers to ZVI particles that are on the nanometer scale, typically ranging from a few to several tens of nanometers in size. Micron-scale ZVI, on the other hand, refers to ZVI particles that are on the micron scale, generally ranging from 1-150 micrometers in size.

The particle size difference between nano-scale and micron-scale ZVI has significant implications for their reactivity and performance in groundwater remediation. Large scale remediation usually required micron-scale ZVI due to the costs associated with nano-scale ZVI.

Micron-scale ZVI may be more suitable for situations where longer-term reactivity and sustained performance are desired, such as in permeable reactive barriers or long-duration remediation projects whereas nano-scale ZVI is a good fit for rapid and efficient contaminant degradation in zones highly concentrated with contaminants.

It’s important to note that the choice between nano-scale and micron-scale ZVI depends on the specific remediation objectives, site conditions, and contaminant characteristics. Each particle size range has its advantages and considerations, and the selection should be based on a comprehensive understanding of the site-specific requirements and the potential benefits and limitations of each particle size range.

ZVI is commonly offered in granular size for PRBs, and smaller particle sizes for injection. CAP Remediation can also provide custom particle sizes tailored to specific remediation requirements.


Zero valent iron (ZVI) is a versatile and widely used material in groundwater remediation. It has unique characteristics that make it effective in treating a variety of contaminants. ZVI’s reductive capacity allows it to donate electrons and facilitate reduction-oxidation reactions, breaking down contaminants into less harmful forms. This reactivity extends to a wide range of contaminants, including chlorinated solvents, heavy metals, nitrates, and organic compounds.

ZVI is commonly employed in various remediation techniques. In pump-and-treat systems, ZVI can be used as a reactive media to enhance contaminant removal. It is also utilized in permeable reactive barriers, where it acts as a long-lasting reductive agent to treat groundwater as it flows through the barrier. Additionally, ZVI can be combined with other technologies such as bioremediation, chemical oxidation, or electrochemical methods, synergistically enhancing the overall remediation process.

The high surface area of ZVI particles enables efficient contact between the material and contaminants, promoting effective degradation. It is often applied in granular or nanoscale form to maximize surface reactivity. Ongoing research focuses on developing advanced ZVI materials, including modifications and coatings, to improve stability, reactivity, and longevity.

Long-term performance and monitoring of ZVI-based remediation systems are critical considerations. Understanding factors such as passivation, reactivity decline, and aging is necessary to optimize ZVI usage and assess its long-term effectiveness. Advanced monitoring techniques, including real-time sensors and remote sensing technologies, contribute to effective assessment and optimization of ZVI remediation.

In summary, ZVI is a valuable tool in groundwater remediation due to its reductive capacity, versatility, and high surface area reactivity. Ongoing developments and research focus on improving ZVI materials, delivery techniques, long-term performance, monitoring, risk assessment, and cost-effectiveness. By advancing our understanding and application of ZVI, we can enhance its efficacy, sustainability, and contribution to effective and sustainable groundwater remediation practices.