Tracers are perhaps the most direct way of diagnosing subsurface fluid flow pathways for ground water decontamination and for natural gas and oil production. Nanoparticle tracers could be particularly effective because they do not diffuse away from the fractures or channels where flow occurs and thus take much less time to travel between two points. In combination with a chemical tracer they can measure the degree of flow concentration. A prerequisite for tracer applications is that the particles are not retained in the porous media as the result of aggregation or sticking to mineral surfaces. By screening eight nanoparticles (3-100 nm in diameter) for retention when passed through calcium carbonate packed laboratory columns in artificial oil field brine solutions of variable ionic strength we show that the nanoparticles with the least retention are 3 nm in diameter, nearly uncharged, and decorated with highly hydrophilic polymeric ligands. The details of these column experiments and the tri-modal distribution of zeta potential of the calcite sand particles in the brine used in our tests suggests that parts of the calcite surface have positive zeta potential and the retention of negatively charged nanoparticles occurs at these sites. Only neutral nanoparticles are immune to at least some retention. © 2014 Springer Science+Business Media.