Does Breaking Bad Get the Science Right?

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 23 2012 10:45 AM

Is It Hard To Make Methylamine?

breakingbadtrain
Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston, and Jesse Plemons on Breaking Bad (AMC)

Note: This post contains spoilers for those not caught up on Breaking Bad.

The last few episodes of Breaking Bad have focused on Walt and Jesse’s quest to acquire methylamine, a compound often used in the production of methamphetamine. The chemical has been an important ingredient in their meth recipe ever since the characters decided to stop cooking with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Pseudoephedrine is hard to get in large quantities; meth dealers sometimes hire “smurfs” to buy loads of cold medication from many different drug stores.

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To get methylamine in the first season Walt and Jesse steal a barrel of the substance from a warehouse; this season they steal a thousand gallons from a train, killing a child in the process. As a post on Reddit asks, since Walt is a brilliant chemist, couldn’t he just synthesize the stuff himself?

Yes, and pretty easily. There are many different ways to make the compound; with little more than an introductory organic chemistry class, you could probably synthesize it in your kitchen sink. (Brow Beat doesn’t recommend trying to make methylamine in your kitchen sink). Chemically speaking, methylamine is just ammonia with one hydrogen atom swapped out for a methyl group—a carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. Without getting into too much detail, an easy way to achieve this swap is to “bubble” ammonia (a gas) through methanol (a liquid) that’s been laced with a dehydrating agent like Silica gel. You could probably buy these chemicals at Home Depot and CVS. Silica gel packets are often packaged with new shoes and electronics to keep them dry.

So why do Walt and Jesse steal methylamine? While making a thousand gallons of the chemical would be expensive, that cost pales in comparison to the profits generated by their business. However, buying a whole bunch of chemicals in bulk would probably attract unwanted attention. (The most likely answer, of course, is that having Walt and Jesse steal methylamine simply makes a good plot point.)

Since the start of the show in 2008, viewers and the media have been intrigued by Breaking Bad’s portrayal of the chemistry of meth manufacturing. As Wired reported last month, the show’s production team includes two researchers dedicated to making Walt and Jesse’s activities plausible. “We have wonderful, truly gracious law enforcement contacts at the Drug Enforcement Administration, who are active agents that help us with both procedure and chemistry,” said Gordon Smith, a writers’ assistant for the show. Breaking Bad also has at least one chemistry consultant—the University of Oklahoma’s Donna Nelson. In an interview with NPR last year, Nelson said the meth-production scenes in the show are specifically designed so they can’t be used as a tutorial.

Thanks to NYU chemistry professor Adam Braunschweig.

Daniel Lametti is a Montreal-based writer and neuroscientist.