A series of naturally occurring ferrihydrites sampled from an acid mine drainage environment were characterized and compared with synthetic 2-line ferrihydrite using high energy X-ray total scattering and pair distribution function analysis, Scanning Transmission X-ray Microscopy (STXM), Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), BET N(2) surface area measurements, and chemical extractions in order to place constraints on their structural and physical properties as a function of composition. Overall, the short- and intermediate-range ordering of the natural samples is comparable to synthetic ferrihydrite. However, with increasing Al, Si, and organic matter contents, a decrease in particle size and an increase in structural disorder were observed. Silica is suspected to have a pronounced effect on the crystallinity of ferrihydrite as a result of its inhibitory effect on Fe polymerization and particle growth, and it is likely complexed at the surfaces of ferrihydrite nanoparticles. Aluminum, on the other hand may substitute for Fe(3+) in natural ferrihydrite. Organic matter is pervasive and intimately associated with ferrihydrite aggregates, and its presence during ferrihydrite precipitation may have contributed to additional structural disorder. The increase in impurity content affects not only the particle size and structural order of ferrihydrite but may also have a significant effect on its surface reactivity. (C) 2010 Academie des sciences. Published by Elsevier Masson SAS. All rights reserved.