In view of zeolite potentiality as a carrier for sustained drug release, a clinoptilolite-rich rock from California (CLI_CA) was superficially modified with cetylpyridinium chloride and loaded with diclofenac sodium (DS). The obtained surface modified natural zeolites (SMNZ) were characterized by confocal scanning laser microscopy (CLSM), powder X-ray diffraction (XRPD) and laser light scattering (LS). Their flowability properties, drug adsorption and in vitro release kinetics in simulated intestinal fluid (SIF) were also investigated. CLI_CA is a Na- and K-rich clinoptilolite with a cationic exchange ability that fits well with its zeolite content (clinoptilolite = 80 wt.%); the external cationic exchange capacity is independent of the cationic surfactant used. LS and CLSM analyses have shown a wide distribution of volume diameters of SMNZ particles that, along with their irregular shape, make them cohesive with scarce flow properties. CLSM observation has revealed the localization of different molecules in/on SMNZ by virtue of their chemical nature. In particular, cationic and polar probes prevalently localize in SMNZ bulk, whereas anionic probes preferentially arrange themselves on SMNZ surface and the loading of a nonpolar molecule in/on SMNZ is discouraged. The adsorption rate of DS onto SMNZ was shown by different kinetic models highlighting the fact that DS adsorption is a pseudo-second order reaction and that the diffusion through the boundary layer is the rate–controlling step of the process. DS release in an ionic medium, such as SIF, can be sustained for about 5 hours through a mechanism prevalently governed by anionic exchange with a rapid final phase.
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