Chemistry of Breaking Bad: Part 1
[We continue to celebrate Breaking Bad Week on Stew Over! All this week, to get ready for the premiere of the fifth and final season (Sunday, July 15th, on AMC), we'll be bringing you articles relating to the show. Today, I sat down with a doctoral candidate in the Chemistry department at the University of Chicago to talk about some of the science behind the show. What follows is part 1 of our interview. As always this week beware of spoilers.]
Stewover: In the meth synthesis process, could you really replace the over-the-counter drug pseudoephedrine with methylamine? Not that I’m asking for myself, of course.
James: It isn’t that they switched out pseudoephedrine for methylamine exactly, but that they switched to a different synthesis, one involving methylamine. Both are viable methods of making meth. In the first season, Hank at one point says “old-fashioned biker P2P” when he’s watching the tape of Jesse and Walt stealing methylamine. What he’s referring to is the process of synthesizing meth using P2P (phenyl-2-propanone) which is the way the Hell’s Angels used to make it in the ’60s, before pseudoephedrine was readily available over the counter and people switched to that.
Stewover: Do you think they’ll switch back now that it’s harder to get it over the counter?
James: Nah, now that it’s harder to get, a lot less is made domestically, but major labs just make it in Mexico and smuggle it over the border. They can get pseudoephedrine in bulk for cheap from China. So in a sense, restricting pseudoephedrine sales worked to shut down domestic labs, but the availability and purity of meth actually went up, I believe. Fewer trailer parks exploding, though. Which is a plus.
Stewover: You have your opinions, I have mine. Moving on, would you agree with Walter White that creating meth is “basic chemistry”? Would a high school chemistry teacher really be able to pull it off, or would it require advanced knowledge?
James: High school students could potentially just follow the synthesis and do it themselves. Plenty of people with only a high school education have done so.
Stewover: But they suck at it. So the fact that Walt is really good helps, but it’s not necessary?
James: Yeah, his low incidence of explosions can attest to that.
Stewover: All right, switching topics: Can red phosphorous plus moisture and heat really kill someone in one breath if you breath it in? Also, would Walt have had those chemicals lying around?
James: So, red phosphorus releases phosphine gas when it reacts with water, which a number of people have died from exposure to. Did Walt just have them in his basement? Didn’t he steal the red phosphorus from somewhere, like the methylamine? I mean, meth cooks harvest red phosphorus from match heads.
Stewover: He had it in the mobile lab and he used it to kill Emilio (the guy he dissolves). He attempted to kill Krazy-8 with it, but it just knocked him out. So it would make sense that he had it on hand?
James: Oh, the one he dissolved in hydrofluoric acid?
Stewover: We’re getting there…
James: Yeah, red phosphorus is used to make meth, so he would’ve had it in the mobile lab.
Stewover: OK. So then when Walt wants to get rid of Emilio’s body using hydrofluoric acid, he asks Jesse to put the body in a plastic tub. Why does hydrofluoric acid not eat plastic, but it does dissolve….
Stewover: What makes Teflon so unreactive? What does fluorinated mean? Is this really a decent way to dispose of a body? Maybe this is beyond the scope of your knowledge?
James: Teflon is so unreactive because it is fully fluorinated. Fully fluorinated means that all the hydrogen atoms have been replaced with fluorine atoms. Now the bonds are much stronger, and things that would have normally been able to break those bonds are not able to do so. Walt tells Jessie to dispose of the body in a Teflon tub. This is because normally hydrofluoric acid will dissolve things by breaking their bonds and replacing them with fluorine bonds. Since Teflon is already fluorinated, this process cannot take place. When Jesse uses a bathtub, however, the hydrofluoric acid breaks down the ceramic. Using hydrofluoric acid is a decent way to dispose of a body. The serial killer John George Haigh, The Acid Bath Murderer, used a similar method. He killed at least six people in this fashion, to sell their possessions and collect their benefits.
Stewover: Moving on…
James: WAIT, don’t you want to talk about hydrofluoric acid?
Stewover: Of course!
James: Hydrofluoric acid is widely used but is VERY dangerous. It’s how you etch glass, for example. It’s very lethal, as it’s a weak acid. This may sounds strange, but that’s because of the definition of “weak” acid. The acids in our stomachs are very strong; it’s because hydrofluoric acid is a weak acid that it’s able to kill you. The strength of an acid is how well that acid breaks down in to protons. Just a small amount can penetrate your skin because it’s a weak acid, and then, once it’s in your blood, can bind with the calcium in your blood. Your body reacts by pulling more calcium out of your bones, thus resulting in a heart attack.
Stewover: That sounds downright terrible. Let’s move on. How accurate are the percentages of the human body that Gretchen mentions (63% hydrogen, 26% oxygen, 9% carbon, 1.25% nitrogen, .25% calcium, .00004% iron, .04% sodium and .19% phosphorous)?
James: Those are definitely not the percentages by weight. You’re over 70% water, and water by weight is 7/8 oxygen. Basically, you’re mostly oxygen. They must have been doing this by percentages of atoms, which is strange way to do it, but is probably pretty accurate.
Stewover: Well, in the show they say that leaves .111958% unaccounted for, and they say that’s the soul. Is there a scientific explanation, or was that just a TV moment?
James: The explanation is that there isn’t that amount unaccounted for. There are trace amounts of other elements in your body. For example, there is some gold in you. Your fingernails, for example, contain quite a bit. If you save your fingernails for a long time, you might be able to accumulate an appreciable amount. There’s also some lead in you, despite the fact that it is bad for you.
Tune into tomorrow for part 2 of our interview!