Zinc oxide (ZnO) nanoparticles were synthesized on diatomite (DE) surface by a low temperature sol gel technique, starting from zinc acetate dihydrate (Zn(CH3COO)2 • 2H2O) solution in water/ethyl alcohol, in presence of triethanolamine (TEA) with functions of Zn2+ chelating agent, catalyst and mediator of nanoparticle growth on DE surface. Microstructural features were investigated by field emission scanning electron microscopy and x-ray diffraction. ZnO crystalline nanoparticles, well distributed both on the surface and into the porous architecture of diatomite, were obtained just after the synthesis carried out at 80 °C without the need of calcination treatments. The optical properties of ZnO/DE hybrid powders were measured for the first time by means of photoacoustic spectroscopy (PAS). A new method to retrieve both the optical absorption and scattering coefficients from PAS is here discussed for powder aggregates. The fingerprint of the zinc oxide nanoparticles has been highlighted in the Mie scattering resonance in the UV-Vis range, and in the enhancement of the optical absorption with respect to diatomite. © 2017 IOP Publishing Ltd.