Pod of pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), a cellulose-rich agricultural residue, was investigated for its nickel binding efficiency. The influence of key physicochemical parameters such as contact time, initial metal ion concentration, adsorbent dosage and pH on nickel (II) removal was studied. The equilibrium time was found to be 45 min. The optimum Ni (II) removal was obtained at an initial metal ion concentration of 80 mg/l, pH of 9.0 and an adsorbent dose of 400 mg/100 ml. A search for optimal combination of key variables was studied by response surface methodology for maximum removal of nickel. The experiment encompassing 17 runs was established with the aid of Box–Behnken design. Owing to the reasonable agreement between predicted and adjusted R 2 value (0.9714), the corresponding quadratic model gives the most appropriate relationship between the variables and response. The optimal point obtained was located in the valid region and the optimum adsorption parameters were predicted as an initial Ni (II) concentration of 60 mg/l, pH value of 9.0 and contact time of 75 min. Under these adsorption conditions, a maximum removal of 96.54 % of initial metal concentration was demonstrated.