The risks of environmental exposures of quantum dot (QD) nanoparticles are increasing, but these risks are difficult to assess because fundamental questions remain about factors affecting the mobility of QDs. The objective of this study is to help address this shortcoming by evaluating the physico-chemical mechanisms controlling the transport and retention of CdSe/ZnS QDs under various environmental conditions. The approach was to run a series of laboratory-scale column experiments where QDs were transported through saturated porous media with different pH values and concentrations of citrate and Suwannee River natural organic matter (SRNOM). Numerical simulations were then conducted and compared with the laboratory data in order to evaluate parameters controlling transport. QD suspensions were injected into the column in an upward direction and ICP-MS used to analyze Cd2+ concentrations (C) in column effluent and sand porous media samples. The increase in the background solution pH values enhanced the QD transport and decreased the QD retention. QD transport recovery percentages obtained from the column effluent samples were 2.6%, 83.2%, 101.7%, 96.5%, and 98.9%, at pH levels of 1.5, 3.5, 5, 7, and 9, respectively. The effects of citrate and SRNOM on the transport and retention of QDs were pH dependent as reflected in the influence of the electrostatic and steric interactions between QDs and sand surfaces. QDs were mobile under unfavorable deposition conditions at environmentally relevant pHs (i.e., 5, 7, and 9). Under favorable pH conditions for deposition (i.e., 1.5), QDs were completely retained within the porous media. The retention profiles of QDs showed a non-exponential decay with distance to the inlet, attributed to multiple deposition rates caused by the QD particles and surface heterogeneities of the quartz silica sand. Results of the diameter ratios of QDs to the median sand grains, in suspensions of DI water at pH 1.5, of citrate at pH 1.5, and of citrate at pH 3.5 indicate straining as the dominating mechanism for QD retention in porous media. The blocking effect and straining were significant under favorable deposition conditions and the detachment effect was non-negligible under unfavorable deposition conditions. Physico-chemical attachment and straining are the governing mechanisms that control the retention of QDs. Overall, experimental results indicate that aggregation, deposition, straining, blocking, and DLVO-type interactions affect the advective transport and retention of QDs in saturated porous media. The simulations were conducted using models that include terms describing attachment, detachment, and straining terms-model 1: M1-attachment, model 2: M2-attachment and detachment, model 3: M3-straining, and model 4: M4-attachment, detachment, and straining. The results from simulations with M2-attachment and detachment and M4-attachment, detachment, and straining matched best the observed breakthrough curves, but all four models inadequately described the retention profiles. Our findings demonstrate that QDs are mobile in porous media under a wide range of physico-chemical conditions representative of the natural environment. The mobility behavior of QDs in porous media indicated the potential risk of soil and groundwater contamination.
Keywords: Colloid filtration theory; DLVO theory; Numerical modeling; Quantum dot nanoparticle; Retention; Transport.