This paper introduces a conceptual model of clays and non-aqueous phase liquids (NAPLs) at the pore scale that has been developed from a mathematical unit cell model, and direct micromodel observation and measurement of clay-containing porous media. The mathematical model uses a unit cell concept with uniform spherical grains for simulating the sand in the sand-clay matrix (???10% clay). Micromodels made with glass slides and including different clay-containing porous media were used to investigate the two clays (kaolinite and montmorillonite) and NAPL distribution within the pore space. The results were used to understand the distribution of NAPL advancing into initially saturated sand and sand-clay media, and provided a detailed analysis of the pore-scale geometry, pore size distribution, NAPL entry pressures, and the effect of clay on this geometry. Interesting NAPL saturation profiles were observed as a result of the complexity of the pore space geometry with the different packing angles and the presence of clays. The unit cell approach has applications for enhancing the mechanistic understanding and conceptualization, both visually and mathematically, of pore-scale processes such as NAPL and clay distribution. ?? 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.