Management of ubiquitous nitrate contamination in drinking water sources is a major engineering challenge due to its negative impacts from eutrophication to immediate risk to human health. Several water treatment technologies exist to manage nitrate pollution in water sources. However, the most widely used technologies are phase separation treatments. In this context, nanoscale photocatalysis emerges as a highly promising transformative technology capable of reducing nitrate to innocuous nitrogen with noticeable selectivity. This critical review describes the photocatalytic reduction mechanisms of nitrate towards undesirable products (nitrite, ammonium) and the more desirable product (dinitrogen). The mechanisms are based on the standard reduction potential of each individual species and highlight the contribution of reducing species (e.g. CO2[rad]) radicals formed from different hole scavengers. The strategic use of different pure, doped, and composite nanoscale photocatalysts is discussed on the basis of reduction mechanisms' overall conversion, kinetic rates, and selectivity towards N2. The choice of light source affects pathways and influences by-product selectivity because direct photolysis of N-intermediates, which has been overlooked in the literature. In addition, the re-oxidation of nitrite and ammonia as drawback process is explained. Finally, an exhaustive analysis presents the photocatalytic reduction applications for treating real water matrices and the competing effect of other species. Overall, this critical review aims to contribute to the understanding of the potential application/constraints of photocatalysis in inorganic nitrogen management, and guide researchers towards future efforts required for widespread implementation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1524-1551
Number of pages28
JournalScience of the Total Environment
StatePublished - Dec 1 2017


  • Nanoparticle
  • Nanotechnology
  • Nitrogen cycle
  • Photocatalysis
  • Titanium dioxide (TiO)
  • Water treatment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


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