It might have been the bonds and relationships between the characters that drove Breaking Bad rather than the chemical ones, but science played an undeniable role in the story of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. From the Home Depot-chemistry behind dissolving bodies (and bathtubs) to the cook itself to the explosions that saw many characters exit the show, science, bitch was the show’s supporting character.
Donna J. Nelson, a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oklahoma and past President of the American Chemical Society, served as the science advisor to Breaking Bad. The good doctor has a new book with written with Dave Trumbore called The Science of Breaking Bad, in which they examine from a fun and geeky perspective the role of hard science in Mr. Chips transition to Scarface, to borrow a comparison from series creator Vince Gilligan.
As the story enters a world without Walter White in El Camino (which ends up having not much science), let’s take a look back at what Jesse Pinkman learned from the master, with the help of Professor Nelson and Mr. Trumbore in this excerpt from The Science of Breaking Bad.
The Lab Maketh the MethOh, Jesse Pinkman, how far you’ve come in five seasons of Breaking Bad. Before Walter White ever gets the idea to synthesize his own meth (and well before his alter ego Heisenberg gets designs on building a drug empire), his former student Jesse Pinkman was a small-time meth user, manufacturer, and dealer operating under the name Cap’n Cook. Cap’n Cook’s claim to not much fame was adding a bit of chili powder to his cook in order to make his “Chili P” product stand out to users. While Jesse probably would have been happier to continue as Cap’n Cook, his customers much preferred the new product brought to market by the mysterious genius known only as Heisenberg.
As you’re about to discover, meth can be made in myriad ways. The show’s stand-ins for the drug likewise have multiple sources. In the pilot episode, Gilligan said that the meth was “a Japanese packing material” according to his prop master at the time; this is the same stuff they use for stunt sequences in which a clear rubber material stands in for broken glass.
In the pilot episode, Gilligan said that the meth was “a Japanese packing material.”
From that point on, the meth was actually just sugar with some food coloring—in other words, rock candy. (Despite this, the actors were still not allowed to be shown inhaling any of the smoke … not that they would have enjoyed doing so anyway.) It was supplied by Debbie Ball, “The Candy Lady” of Albuquerque, also known as “The Bad Candy Lady,” who was initially approached during the show’s first season by Breaking Bad’s prop department. Ball supplied both the initial white crystal rock candy (cotton candy-flavored) and the Blue Sky version, which she now sells on her website (drug-free, of course).
Gilligan admits to having a vague idea of coloring the meth light blue, like the sky, towards the end of Season 1 so that the locals might call it “Sky”; the fact that Walt’s wife’s name is Skyler would have tied into this theme in a troubling manner, but ultimately nothing came of the connotation.
From the RV, to the Superlab, a mobile pest fumigation tent, a desert bunker, and a white supremacist compound, Breaking Bad’s meth labs offered up some of the most impressive visuals on the show thanks to very clever writing and an incredibly talented and hard-working production crew. The labs themselves, regardless of how well outfitted they were, provided some of the best scenarios for bringing real-world science into the fictional world of Heisenberg and his associates.
By Season 1, Episode 7: “A No-Rough- Stuff- Type Deal,” the frustrating and lengthy process of “smurfing” pseudoephedrine—employing people to buy small amounts of over-the- counter cold medicine from a variety of stores across a large area—becomes untenable. Walt’s in the empire business, after all. To get around this snafu, Walt opts to switch his cook to an alternate method: reductive amination using phenylacetone and methylamine, otherwise known as the P2P cook. To quote Jesse Pinkman, “Yeah, science!”
A P2P cook, taking its name from the chemical phenylacetone (C9H10O, a.k.a. phenyl-2- propanone, or P2P), is a more complicated process with less room for error and a lower overall yield than a pseudoephedrine cook, but the precursors are relatively easier to come by in sufficient quantities. Superfans will know that procuring methylamine becomes a major plot point throughout the seasons, a difficulty introduced in this very episode. But the precursor isn’t the only thing Walt will need to change up his approach. The shopping list he gives to Jesse includes the following:
Autotransformer — Used to regulate voltage from a power supply, stepping it up or down to the required power level for a piece of equipment, such as a tube furnace.
Thirty-five- millimeter tube furnaces (two) or 70-millimeter tube furnace (one) — An electric heater, usually a cylindrical cavity surrounded by heating coils within an insulator, used to synthesize and purify compounds.
Anhydrous methylamine (6L) — Precursor chemical (CH3NH2)
Thorium nitrate (40g) — A radioactive chemical compound, Th(NO3)4, used to produce the catalyst, thorium dioxide (ThO2).
Hydrogen (electrolytically produced) — Electrolysis is the process of passing an electric current through water to split it into oxygen and hydrogen gas. This removes or at least reduces chances of contamination.
Now, I know that the RV technically wasn’t the site of the first P2P cook— it had broken down, as it often did, forcing Walt and Jesse to temporarily cook in Jesse’s own basement in the Season 1 finale—but it becomes the main cook site for Blue Sky meth for the next season and a half, so I’ll cut it some slack here.
After boosting the barrel of methylamine—which should keep Walt and Jesse cooking “for the foreseeable future”—the drug-making duo set to work on their new method. The setup looks much more stripped-down and bare-bones in the season finale than the pseudoephedrine cook scenes glimpsed earlier in the season since the equipment and glassware just sit atop a pair of folding tables. We’re still a long ways off from the Superlab.
However, the chemistry is still sound. A reductive amination reaction involves the following steps:
A ketone or aldehyde — simple compounds with a carbonyl group, that is, a carbon-oxygen double bond, RC(=O)R′ — is reacted with an amine, a compound that contains a basic nitrogen atom.
The two molecules combine into one larger one, along with the loss of a smaller molecule. This is known as a condensation reaction.
The newly formed molecule is known as an imine — a compound containing a carbon-nitrogen double bond (C=N) — or a Schiff base, if that nitrogen atom is not bonded to a hydrogen atom.
This is then reduced (i.e., it gains hydrogen) to form the desired amine.
In other words, reductive amination is an impressive way of saying, “Combine two molecules to make an imine. Turn it into an amine.” This is a powerful and versatile process in the chemist’s tool kit, especially since it’s more controllable than alkylation—the transferring of alkyl groups (like −CH3 or −CH2CH3, etc.), which can lead to a mixture of undesirable products — and both steps can be done in the same reaction flask.
When it comes to Breaking Bad, reductive amination is the path to Blue Sky, Heisenberg’s signature crystal meth. It makes its first, unforgettable appearance in the Season 1 finale.
Reductive amination is the path to Blue Sky, Heisenberg’s signature crystal meth.
Walt and Jesse may have their P2P synthesis and reduction method locked down, but the availability of the other precursor, methylamine, remains a thorn in their sides the entire series. The writers simply could have let Heisenberg make his own methylamine as well, but then we would have been denied the drama of Walt and Jesse’s lock-burning warehouse robbery; high-stress business dealings and negotiations with suppliers, like the Mexican cartel, Gustavo Fring, and Lydia Rodarte-Quayle; and, it goes without saying, the incredible and intense train heist.
Methylamine can be made industrially by reacting ammonia with methanol using an amorphous silica-alumina catalyst, and it has also been made in the lab by hydrolysis of the extremely toxic and hazardous chemical methyl isocyanate. (Nineteenth-century French chemist Charles Adolphe Wurtz discovered the actions of isocyanates as they relate to urethane chemistry, specifically preparing methylamine by this process in 1849.) Another process, known as the Hofmann rearrangement, after the excellently named nineteenth-century German chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann, synthesizes methylamine by reacting acetamide in a basic solution with bromine, after proceeding through a number of intermediate chemicals. So while it was possible for Walt to make all of the precursor he ever needed, it probably wasn’t cost effective or timely to do so. And it certainly wasn’t as dramatic as the Breaking Bad we know and love.
So, even if your head’s spinning from all of this advanced chemistry talk, hopefully you can now appreciate the meth-making montages a little more.
By Dave Trumbore and Donna J. Nelson, excepted from The Science of Breaking Bad (The MIT Press, 2019).