Getting the Chemistry Right on Breaking Bad – Bytesize Science

Getting the Chemistry Right on Breaking Bad – Bytesize Science


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve
heard of the phenomenon known as AMC’s Breaking Bad. Well we got the chance to sit down with
Donna Nelson, a chemistry consultant for the show to find out a few things. Before we get
to her, here’s a few things you need to know. Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher
who is diagnosed with lung cancer. He breaks bad and starts cooking methamphetamines to
pay for his medical treatments and to support his family. Walt’s meth is the purest meth
around, gaining him the nickname Heisenberg. Oh and because Walt has turned into an unstoppable
force in the drug dealing community. Anyway, while creating the series, Vince Gilligan,
the producer of Breaking Bad, talked to Chemical and Engineering news, which Donna happened
to read: And I saw that Vince was saying ‘we really
wanted to get the science right, but none of my writers and I have a science background,
so we would really appreciate constructive comments from a chemically-inclined audience.’ So Donna made her way out to Burbank and met
with the writers. They asked for her input on everything from what makes a person go
into chemistry to how teachers talk to students, essentially getting Walt’s motivation from
a real chemist. Eventually they moved to the more technical side. One of the specific first things that they
did was a lecture that Walter was doing on alkenes to his high school kids. They sent
the script by me and asked me to sort of make some suggestions and clean it up. And at the
end of that they said is there anything that Walter might have written on the blackboard.
And I said while I can send you some alkene structures. And I did and they reproduced
those exactly up on the blackboard so you can see it. Breaking Bad took the steps to ensure most
of the science presented on the show is accurate, down to the tiniest details. To use who are educated in science whenever
we see science presented inaccurately it’s like finger nails on a blackboard. It just
drives us crazy. And we can’t stay immersed in the show. Along with keeping the chemistry component
accurate, Breaking Bad also took their actors into consideration: I remember when they first asked me some questions
about the P2P method. And I said well you know there are two steps. The first step is
always the same. But the second step can depend on the reducing agent. And I said well which
reducing agent would you like me to use? And they said we don’t know! Ah what could we
use. So I sent them a list. And there was one that was just simply aluminum mercury
and they said oh use that one! It’ll be easy for the actors to say. Safety, cost, yield? Nah, they’ll pick the
reducing agent based on what’s easiest to pronounce. All of the equations on how much
meth could be produced from a certain amount of methylamine is actually 100% accurate with
the aluminum mercury as the reducing agent. But I mean, this is a fictional TV show. Some
artistic license had to be taken. The powder blue meth that you see is really
sort of like Walter’s trademark. In real life, meth would not be powder blue like that. The
meth would be colorless. So we also know methylamine and aluminum mercury
are used to create meth. But for those of you who think the show might actually give
away to make illegal drugs, think again. Vince has involved DEA agents from the very
beginning. I mean they approve everything that he puts on the screen. They know exactly
what an illicit meth lab looks like. They helped him know which critical steps to omit
or make slight changes or in some cases things to discuss that really don’t make a difference. Shows about drugs can be pretty serious and
controversial. And serious questions can arise. Will it corrupt the minds of our young children?
I tell them no. I think that the life style Walter is living, it doesn’t glorify the drug
culture at all. I’m on Skylar’s side. She’s a woman and so
I think she’s becoming a stronger character in the show. So I’ll be watching to see if
she becomes stronger.

Author:

29 thoughts on “Getting the Chemistry Right on Breaking Bad – Bytesize Science”

  • The scene with the hydrofluoric acid in the bathtub was grossly exaggerated, the scene with the fulminating mercury was grossly exaggerated, after that i stoped watching. That's all i have to say.

  • Denuris Turgryn says:

    Lol @ enantioselective synthesis with P2P method using Al-Hg as a reducing agent :p
    Oh and by the way, they make this whole fuss about methylamine, while it is EASY AS FUCK (and I'm not exagerating by using capslock) to synthesize with common chemicals (well one common and two less common but definitely not suspect to buy)

  • At the end, the chemist in this video says she is on Skyler's side because "she's a woman"……. Seriously? Is she going to vote for Hillary Clinton for the same reason? If you take umbrage to that observation, imagine the aforementioned genders reversed. Does that still sound rational?

  • I thoroughly enjoyed the poor science choices in BB. How a scientist would try and trickle charge a car battery with a broken genny down long thick (high resistance) jump leads was impossible and downright dumb. A genny doesn't produce lower amperage and voltage by turning it slow. Until you get it up to speed it produces nothing.
    They might have been able to get the RV's alternator to spin fast enough to charge the battery some as it could have been taken out, or salvaged for parts to make a working hand genny.
    While they could produce 12v from a series of homemade 2v cells their little cells were not going to produce the amperage to turn over an engine.
    So they end up doing the impossible.
    Actually all they needed was to charge the phone which had gone flat (3.8V and 300maH).
    Rest a recently flattened car battery and the residual chemical reaction would give enough to charge/run a phone, or make a simple 2 cell battery ( half a dozen lemons and 12 zinc nails would do), use that to run the phone or fully charge the lipo in about 4-6 hours.

  • Thank god they made sure people won't learn how to make drugs from their tv series. Surely, there's no other way to obtain that information.

  • Everything they got wrong in breaking bad that i can be fucked pointing out.
    First obvious one is that walter white is a degenerate if he cannot make his own methylamine, practically all clandestine chemists can make methylamine with ease here are some ways from OTC reagents:

    CH3NO2 + H2 + catalyst > CH3NH2

    SO3HNH2 + CH3OH + reflux > SO4HCH3.NH3 + heat > CH3NH2.H2SO4

    NH4Cl + COH2 + reflux > CH3NH2.HCl

    The second obvious point is the purity, in the series they say his is 97% pure, now this is confusing because are they talking about enantiomeric purity or the literal overall purity of the meth. I am going to assume they are talking about enantiomeric purity because if a crystalographer can only make a 97% pure compound he simply is not a fucken crystalographer let alone a chemist. There are 2 enantiomers of methamphetamine R and S and i unfortunately cannot remember which is the better one but one is the desirable enantiomer wile the other is the weaker enantiomer, the process of separating the enantiomers is relatively straight forward if not a bit tedious and involves a chiral resolution by first reacting the racemic mixture with a chiral seed crystal such as (-)tartaric acid to which only the corresponding methamphetamine enantiomer would form a crystal with and there are several different ways of doing this kind of separation, entrainment resolution and spontaneous resolution.
    The issue with doing this is that you would essentially halve your yield of the desired chiral methampheamine leaving you with good methamphetamine but also some shit methamphetamine. Some more intelligent individuals might point out that there are ways in which an enantiomer can be selectively produced during the formation of the amine however Walter white did not use a selective process for producing the amine he did it by formation of an imine from P2P and methylamine followed by hydrogenation and this process doesn't produce the desired selectivity at all. THERE IS NO HYDROGENATION THAT PRODUCES A CHIRAL SELECTIVITY, the aluminium amalgam without a doubt would not produce chiral selectivity. There are ways to make enantiomer selective meth however non of these methods involve using a hydrogenation.

    Third point is the fact that his meth is blue and this is fine mostly but its basically done by just adding blue food coloring during the recrystalization, to those of you who say "but food coloring is water based" you are correct however the people on the show literally stole the blue meth idea from a guy in i think new York who got caught making meth and he use to use blue food coloring to make his product more distinct.

    You cannot make mercury fulminate look like meth. Mercury fulminate is typically a grey powder when dry however it an be recrystalized to a white powder at best but it lacks the structure required to make up large crystals let alone become translucent.

    This ones not as much of a big deal but any pyro will tell you that with thermite the more finely ground the particles of aluminium the better quality the thermite and the aluminium in an etch and scratch toy thing would contain impurities as well as be poorly divided and would not work to make thermite.

    Its been a wile since ive watched breaking bad so im beginning to forget what actually happened in it, but when Walter extract ricin from castor beans he does so using only a couple beans however ricin is not in that high of a concentration to extract a lethal dose from that many and you would likely need around 50-100 castor beans to extract a lethal dose. Also there are several papers describing the extraction of ricin floating about and i have only read one to which i will not reference, the process is kinda a pain in the butt and involves first washing the skinless beans with a solvent to remove the castor oil followed by drying for atleast a day and crushing the beans into a fine powder to which the ricin is extracted, this process should take atleast several day to accomplish not a single day. I realize this is a little nit picky but if you understood chemistry you would be picking the details apart in the same way however the one thing they did get right here with the ricin was the dose; you see the oral lethal dose of ricin is 1mg per kg of body weight and that capsule looked to be containing atleast 100mg so that was a nice attention to detail.

    I almost forgot the whole dissolving a body in hydrofluoric acid which is without a doubt the craziest most nonsensical things in the entire series where to begin. Firstly is whether or not HF can actually dissolve a body and the answer is fuck no, periodic videos did a test on this and im sure i dont need to explain to people how HF is actually a comparatively weak acid compared to most and if you actually wanted to dissolve a body in acid the your best bet would be either perchloric acid or peroxymonosulfuric acid otherwise known as piranha solution, that is because these are strong oxidizing acids and they oxidize carbon based compounds to CO2, A strong excess of base however would be a better option.
    Now the toxicity of HF; to put it simply it is one if not the single most feared semi commonly used reagent in pretty much all of chemistry with the exception of maybe a few rather absurd compounds or elements such as dimethyl cadmium or polonium or plutonium. There is a case in Australia where a man accidentally spilled a beaker of HF on his leg while working, despite this man taking every measure possible to decontaminate including jumping in a swimming pool and having his leg amputated he evidently died 2 weeks later, the fact that these 2 idiots are on there knees scrubbing away at this shit with minimal safety gear is astonishing.

    Ok im getting sick of writing by this stage I am certain that there are many other details that were incorrect but i just wanted to get all this shit off my chest for now.

  • Pugile MoltoBene says:

    The truth is, it is asinine for what ppl will pay for precursor untraceable by federal agents when it is so easy to make – with a dozen titration sets running for 12 hrs and approximately 600lb of silica gelatin and ammonia, any person could produce enough precursor to make $50m of higher-quality P2P meth. Even selling raw precursor could net millions. Anyone can do this, not like it’s rocket science…just the ruination of a culture.

  • lmfao at people who arnt chemistry majors watching this video. Also lmfao with chemistry graduate students who are watching this

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