Breaking Bad Science Advisor Donna Nelson on the Show’s Real-Life Science – Part 2

Lewis Jacobs/ Still Photographer, 2008Editor’s Note: Dr. Donna J. Nelson, Professor of Organic Chemistry at University of Oklahoma, has served as a Science Advisor on Breaking Bad since 2008. In Part 2 of her essay for amc.com, she deconstructs Walter White’s perfect cook, outlines best practices for actually melting a body, and describes the chemistry required to bomb Tuco’s hideout. (Click here to read Part 1 of her essay.)

Breaking Bad may be a fictional show, but much of its science is based in reality. Below is a breakdown of some of the best science moments on Breaking Bad. Remember that many of these scenes include very dangerous and sometimes illegal activities. In other words, don’t try this at home!

Just Basic Chemistries

“You’re an artist,” Jesse tells Walt after he’s cooked up the purest meth ever seen. Walt replies that the process is “just basic chemistry,” but sometimes the process shown is actually unrelated methods of synthesis spliced together. In order to keep the show from being a “how-to” for meth production, viewers are often shown reaction sequences missing crucial steps or combining steps from different processes. For example, a step from a P2P (phenyl-2-propanone) synthesis could be followed by a step from an ephedrine/pseudoephedrine reduction.* Anyone literally following Walt’s techniques would end up with chemical garbage instead of the near-perfect “glass” shown on TV.

When Walt and Jesse switch from pseudoephedrine to methylamine as an ingredient, they produce the infamous blue meth. But in reality, any color change — i.e., a slight blue tinge — would be due to an increased purity and not the introduction of methylamine.

Slushy à la Emilio

In Season 1 Episode 2, Walt and Jesse kill Emilio with phosphine gas and have to dispose of his body. Walt grabs a few bottles of hydrofluoric acid (HF) and tells Jesse to purchase a polyethylene bin, warning Jesse of the caustic nature of the chemical. Unable to find a bin that’s big enough, Jesse settles for dissolving Emilio’s body in his porcelain bathtub. The acid eats through the tub, causing the remains to crash through the ceiling.

Hydrofluoric acid is a solution of hydrogen fluoride in water. It can be created by treating calcium difluoride (CaF2) and sulfuric acid at a high temperature, the result being two parts hydrogen fluoride and one part calcium sulfate. The balanced equation is:

CaF2 + H2SO4 → 2 HF + CaSO4

This highly corrosive acid is found diluted (three percent HF in H20) in household rust stain removers, wheel cleaners, and stainless steel purifiers. Despite its impressive resume as a tough solution, it isn’t the best option for dissolving a body. Typically, flesh is dissolved with a base, most commonly sodium hydroxide (lye), often used in the disposal of road kill. This option would have been a lot safer to use to dissolve Emilio, too. Lye is a common clog remover in drains, so Jesse’s bathtub stunt would not have been so disastrous.

It also would have been safer because sodium hydroxide fumes are not nearly so toxic. Sure, Jesse was wearing his mask when he began the reaction, but its fumes would have infiltrated the house and damaged most exposed surfaces inside by the time the acid had eaten through the tub.

Boom Goes the Mercury (II) Fulminate

In Season 1 Episode 6, Walt sets out to collect $35,000 from a distributor, Tuco, as payment for a stolen pound of crystal meth. When Tuco refuses, Walt blows the windows out of Tuco’s hideout with a large “meth” crystal. A terrified Tuco hands over the money and agrees to a business deal. Realizing the crystal wasn’t meth, Tuco asks what it was.

“Fulminated mercury,” Walt replies. “A little tweak of chemistry.”

First a clarification: Walt’s “tweak of chemistry” came by making mercury (II) fulminate look like crystal meth — he did not tweak a meth recipe to produce it. When the episode aired, chemistry forums sprung up around the internet debating the possibility of mercury (II) fulminate looking like crystal methamphetamine. According to the Chemical Rubber Company’s Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, it actually can.** In fact, crystallizing the compound makes it more pure, and thus more reactive.

However, the sensitivity of mercury fulminate made its use a dangerous choice for Walt. Beyond the risk Walt took while detonating it, mercury (II) fulminate is sensitive to heat, sparks, flame, friction, and shock.*** In real life, Walt’s entire bag of tweaked chemistry would likely have detonated a lot sooner than planned — and much more violently.

End Times

Breaking Bad is full of intense chemistry, and most of it corresponds to real-life science. Whether Jesse and Walt are breaking into chemical storage or disposing of various bodies to cover their secrets, the guys are always bringing chemistry out of the classroom and into a whole new field. While all of Walt and Jesse’s escapades are rooted in reality, it’s important to remember that the show is fictitious.

*Drug Enforcement Agency. Methamphetamine: A Growing Domestic Threat, Methods of Production. (accessed July 31, 2012).

**Chemical Rubber Company. Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, College Edition, 50th Ed.; Cleveland, 1969; p.B130.

***Georgia Tech. ChemFacts: Safe Handling of Mercury and Mercury Compounds. (accessed Aug. 7, 2012)

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