Modification of zeolite (clinoptilolite) surface with a quaternary amine, hexadecyl trimethyl ammonium bromide (HTAB), to improve the removal efficiency of reactive azo dyes in a zeolite fixed bed was investigated. A series of adsorption tests were conducted to find out the uptake of three types of reactive dyes, i.e. CI Reactive Black 5, Red 239 and Yellow 176. Each run consisted of modifying zeolite with HTAB in the column followed by removal of color from the modified zeolite bed. The breakthrough curves for modification process were constructed under different conditions by plotting the normalized effluent concentration (C/C-0) versus time or bed volumes (BV). Optimization studies show that 3 g/l of HTAB dosage at a flowrate of 0.025 l/min showed the best performance. Examination of the dye removal under the optimum modification conditions reveals that the black dye gives the highest breakthrough point among the three dyes tested. This is ascribed to the hydrophobic/hydrophilic match of the zeolite surface with the dye molecule, which depends upon the way zeolite is modified with HTAB. Calculations of the HTAB coverage on zeolite surface indicate that a bilayer formation is the most viable packing that enables maximum removal of the dye. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.