Abstract Nanoscale zero-valent iron particles (NZVIs) were incorporated inside the channels of SBA-15 rods by a “two solvents” reduction technique and used to remove Cr(VI) from groundwater. The resulting NZVIs/SBA-15 composites before and after reaction were characterized by N2 adsorption/desorption, X-ray diffraction (XRD), transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS). Results helped to propose the mechanism of Cr(VI) removal by NZVIs/SBA-15, where Cr(VI) in aqueous was firstly impregnated into the channels of the silica, then adsorbed on the surfaces of the incorporated NZVIs and reduced to Cr(III) directly in the inner pores of the silica. Corrosion products included Fe2O3, FeO(OH), Fe3O4 and Cr2FeO4. Batch experiments revealed that Cr(VI) removal decreased from 99.7% to 92.8% when the initial solution pH increased from 5.5 to 9.0, accompanied by the decrease of the kobs from 0.600 to 0.024min−1. Humic acid (HA) had a little effect on the removal efficiency of Cr(VI) by NZVIs/SBA-15 but could decrease the reduction rate. The stable reduction of NZVIs/SBA-15 was observed within six cycles. NZVIs/SBA-15 composites offer a promising alternative material to remove heavy metals from groundwater.