Chemistry of Breaking Bad: Part 2

[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, we continue our conversation with a doctoral candidate in the chemistry department at the University of Chicago. We continue our discussion about some of the science behind the show. What follows is the conclusion of our interview. If you missed it, here’s Part 1. As always, beware of  spoilers.]

Stewover: Can fulminated mercury cause a giant explosion like it did in Tuco’s hideout? Would fulminated mercury look like meth?

James: Fulminated mercury is an old timey way of saying mercury fulminate. It can cause an explosion, but I’m not sure how giant. It’s a touch explosive (not unlike Snap Pops, which contain silver fulminate), and it probably would have exploded in his pocket well before he got there. Mercury fulminate used to be used in firearms. Big crystals of fulminated mercury might look like that–most crystals end up looking pretty similar. Actually, no. You don’t get the crystals, it just looks like a powder.

This probably wouldn’t have happened…

Stewover: Would using phenylacetone created from methylamine create a blue color as it does in the show?

James: As we spoke about earlier, back in the 60s/70s when synthesis using methylamine was the main form of creating meth, it was made from chemicals that were more readily available. There’s a scene in Easy Rider where these old biker gangs make meth. I’ve never heard of blue meth before, so that process alone doesn’t create the blue color or it would be known as blue meth.

Stewover: Could you mix the aluminum powder from an Etch-a-Sketch with iron oxide to create thermite? And could it then melt through some giant steel?

James: Yes, you can. And yes, it could. Thermite is used in steel production. It burns incredibly hot. Typically, you need magnesium to ignite it. If you put a nickel-sized piece of it on a car’s engine, it would burn straight through the engine and onto the ground.

Stewover: Switching topics regarding to Walt’s battery experiment: Does it make sense? He divided a small polypropylene container in half with a sponge soaked in potassium hydroxide, then filled one side with mercuric oxide and graphite from brake pads and the other with pocket change. When he connected the two via a copper wire, the brake pads made a negative charge, the zinc from the coins made a positive charge, and the sponge acted as the electrolyte that separated them. This is one of his more complicated experiments. What are the odds it works?

James: He’s making a simple battery. It would take more thinking and looking up for me to tell if the potentials of those materials are right, but all batteries work on the same theory: you have materials of different potentials and something separating them to get charge to flow–that is, electrons moving from one material to the other, oxidizing one and reducing the other

This probably took more than a wet sponge.

Stewover: If you put a moist sponge on a car engine, will it blow up?

James: Old car batteries can leak hydrogen gas (the gas that caused the Hindenburg to go up in flames). That’s why they tell you to ground the negative charge when you jump your car, so you don’t create a spark and blow your car. So by applying the moist sponge across both terminals of the battery, he was creating a short circuit. To create an explosion, you have to sort of count on the battery to be leaking the gas, so that’s why it has to be older. That’s why they don’t put batteries in trunks, because they don’t want the gas to build up. So, to answer your question, I don’t know if it would spark right away. you’d probably just get a really hot squeegee.

Stewover: All right, final question: Is it possible to synthesize ricin from castor beans?

James: Yes, but it’s not a synthesis. Castor beans produce it naturally. You can extract ricin from them. Ricin is a poisonous protein. Just a few castor beans can kill you. There’s the famous death of Georgi Markov who may or may not have been killed by the KGB. They found a pellet of ricin the size of a pin in his leg. It doesn’t take much, really; 4 to 8 castor seeds would be a lethal dose. On a related note, you can extract cyanide from almonds; it would just take a LOT more work to obtain a lethal dose.

Are we sure Nicole didn’t eat some Castor Beans by mistake?

Stewover: So you’re telling me ricin is toxic?

James: Yeah, ricin’s really toxic. Two milligrams can kill you. Less than 1/2000 of the weight of a nickel. A nickel’s weight of ricin can kill 2,500 people. But ricin isn’t the only product obtained from these beans. Castor oil is extracted from castor beans. Castor oil used to be taken in small amounts as a health tonic, but Mussolini  used to make his enemies take large amounts of castor oil, causing intense diarrhea and dehydration and, eventually, deathNo one takes castor oil anymore, but I think it was something you could buy in Oregon Trail.

We’ll leave it there with a sweet Oregon Trail reference. Thanks for your time. We’ll check back during season 5 if any other chemistry questions come up!

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