Breaking Bad’s science advisor fact checks some of the show’s greatest chemistry moments

Walter White and Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad

Throughout the five seasons of AMC’s Breaking Bad, Walter White, or as he’s known to the underworld, Heisenberg, and Jesse Pinkman have relied on chemistry for more than making meth. With the show’s final arc scheduled to begin later today, I started to wonder about all the science behind one of the best shows on television.

With the help of her student Melodie Lettkeman, Breaking Bad science advisor and University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna Nelson weighed in on the fact and fiction behind some of the greatest chemistry moments so far on the show. University of New Mexico chemistry department chair Steven Cabaniss and University of Oregon chemistry department head Michael Haley provided additional comments.

Beware of spoilers!

Is highly pure meth made “the old fashioned way” really blue?

Tuco and Walter White with Blue Meth
Near the end of season 1, Walt and Jesse realize there’s no way they can collect enough pseudoephedrine from over-the-counter medications to make several pounds of meth a week. They decide to go old school and cook with methylamine instead. The resulting crystal meth comes out in a striking blue color. Nelson said that’s not realistic.

Nelson:

In season one, episode seven, Walt claims the near perfect chemical makeup of his meth is responsible for the trademark hue of the product. In real life, switching from pseudoephedrine to methylamine would have no effect on the visible look of the drug, except a possible perceived discoloration similar to the greenish hue very thick glass sometimes has. Sometimes very pure crystals appear to have a bluish color, because in our minds, we compare them to other typical crystal samples which are slightly impure and therefore have a very slight yellow tinge. The color change would likely have little effect on the market- in the show, the color is simply associated with the very powerful substance Heisenberg produces. According to the DEA, colored meth is very likely flavored.

Why does hydrofluoric acid eat through a ceramic bathtub, but not a plastic container?

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One of the most gruesome scenes in the entire series hits viewers in season 1, episode 2. Jesse ignores Walt’s instructions to melt drug dealer Emilio’s dead body down with hydrofluoric acid in a plastic container and instead opts for his house’s ceramic bathtub. The acid eats through the tub and floor, resulting in a gross, splattered mess.

Haley:

Ceramic materials are made up of many atom of the element silicon. Fluorine loves to make strong bonds with silicon and thus HF will “eat” through ceramic, glass, etc.; any material made of silicon atoms.

But Nelson is skeptical of Walt’s choice of hydrofluoric acid.

Nelson:

Despite its impressive resume as a tough solution, it wouldn’t have been the best option to dissolve a body. Typically, flesh is dissolved with a base, most commonly sodium hydroxide (lye), generally 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 the fumes are not nearly so toxic. Most household uses of hydrofluoric acid are diluted to 3 percent hydrofluoric acid in H2O, in order to make them safe for use. Sure, Jesse was wearing his mask when he began the reaction, but the fumes would have infiltrated the house, and would have damaged most exposed surfaces inside, by the time the acid had eaten through the tub.

How powerful is a mercury fulminate explosion?

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Walt gets explosive in season 1, episode 6 when he visits drug lord Tuco’s lair. Aware that Tuco and his cronies had just put Jesse in the hospital for demanding money upfront in return for their meth, Walt brings along a secret weapon: mercury fulminate. He passes it off as meth and then slams it on the ground when Tuco threatens him, resulting in an explosion that breaks windows and sets off car alarms, but doesn’t seem to cause any lasting damage for the people in the room.

Cabaniss:

Mercury fulminate makes very loud and “sharp” explosions on contact, and has been used in (dangerous) “practical jokes.” Very small amounts can be painted onto a chair or toilet seat; the victim sits down and a loud pop ensues. I would not carry it around, since any sudden jarring could set it off. I’m surprised Walt’s “demo” explosion did not set off the larger bag he held up afterwards.

Haley:

Call it dramatic license, i.e., exaggeration, on the part of the show. An explosion the size of what they show would likely leave people deaf and/or severely injured. You would be stupid to put in in a baggie in your pocket, especially the amount you might need to cause the damage you see on the show.

Nelson:

According to the Chemical Rubber Company’s Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, it can come in large crystal form. In fact, crystallizing the compound makes it more pure, and thus more reactive. In real life, Walt’s entire bag of tweaked chemistry would likely have detonated a lot sooner than planned and much more violently — few, if any people, would have survived inside the room.

Can you actually make thermite from an etch-a-sketch? Would it burn through a lock like that?

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In season 1, episode 7, Walt and Jesse need a way to break into a chemical warehouse to steal a barrel of methylamine. Walt takes inspiration from an etch-a-sketch in Jesse’s garage that they crack open to harvest aluminum powder. They use it to produce thermite, which dramatically burns through the warehouse’s lock.

Nelson:

Aluminum powder is definitely an ingredient in thermite. Walt and Jesse could have easily purchased the powder in larger supply had they just gone to a hardware store, since our calculations suggest they’d need close to 200 etch-a-sketches to fill the baggie in the show.

Cabaniss:

The thermite reaction does indeed melt metal; it can be used for welding. It is a favorite demonstration for some high school chemistry teachers (including mine) — sparks, smoke, flame, etc. but in a controlled, non-explosive fashion.  I don’t know why more people don’t carry aluminum powder for opening locks.

Nelson:

[Walt and Jesse] would need to give the door much more space, they would have been unable to stare at the burn with unprotected eyes, and no part of the door would have been cool enough to touch in a reasonable amount of time.

(This story was updated at 9:09am to correct the name of Walt’s alter ego to the underworld and to correct the affiliation of Donna Nelson in the summary.)

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