The Chemistry we learned from "Breaking Bad"

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You may be intrigued by how many people got inspired by this series. A chemistry related series, Breaking Bad renewed interest in the subject and the way it affects the small things that we experience routinely.  Walter White a.k.a. Heisenberg portrayed such a strong image of chemistry that led people to study the subject with a renewed vigor. So lets take a look at some of the chemistry related phenomenon shown in the series.

1) Colored Fire

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The pilot episode kicked off with a chemistry demonstration in which Walter sprays the Bunsen burner flame with three different chemicals which change a different tinge to the flame. The different color of flame was mainly due to the reaction of heat with the solution of metal salts. If salt is sprinkled into a flame, an orange color appears. The colored flame is a result of electrons in sodium ions absorbing energy and moving up to higher energy levels and then falling back to their ground state, emitting specific amounts of energy that correspond to colors of light. Different elements give different colors such as copper sulfate gives off green color, strontium chloride gives red, borax gives yellowish green, potassium chloride gives purple and magnesium sulfate gives white color to the flame.  You can just sprinkle the salt on a campfire or such to see the color but in case of a burner, you need to make a solution of the metal salt to get the desired effect from the flame by spraying it.

2) Phosphine Gas

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While working in their makeshift lab in the desert, Walter gets threatened by two gangsters. He gets rid of them by improvising a method to create poisonous phosphine gas to subdue his assailants. The cooking of meth involves a chemical reduction of pseudoephedrine or ephedrine with the help of red phosphorus ( an allotrope of white phosphorous). Though the scene showed that the reaction of red phosphorous with hot water led to the creation of poisonous gas, in real it is not so. Red phosphorus can react with hydrogen to produce phosphine which is a colorless and flammable gas that wreaks havoc on the respiratory system when inhaled and is immediately life-threatening at 50 ppm. Luckily Jesse and Walter had the respirators that allowed them to survive.

3) Hydrofluoric Acid’s Corrosiveness

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During the series, Walter tells Jesse to dispose of the dead bodies using the hydrofluoric acid. Jesse puts the dead body in a bathtub, adds the whole bottle of acid which leads to dissolving of the body, the tub, the floor supporting the tub, and the floor below that. Hydrofluoric acid is indeed very corrosive since it attacks the silicon oxide in most types of glass and dissolves many kinds of metals and most plastics. Fluorocarbons such as Teflon, natural rubber and neoprene all are resistant to hydrofluoric acid. The corrosiveness of this acid is due to the highly reactive fluorine ion. Hydrofluoric acid is not considered as a strong reactive acid since it does not completely dissociate in water.

4) Fulminated Mercury

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Fulminated Mercury played an important role when Walter had a stand-off with the drug kingpin. When the kingpin tries to cheat him out of his money, Walter throws a crystal on the ground which detonates, creating an almighty explosion which makes the kingpin give him his due money. The crystal he threw on the ground to create an explosion is termed as mercury fulminate and it is a very unstable and explosive compound and crystals larger than a few millimeters in size are very tricky to handle.  Walt's crystals are rather large and a bag of them would not be stable enough to walk around with and handle as we see in the programme.

5) Using Thermite to burn the lock

Breaking Bad

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Walt and Jesse require a chemical that is only available at an industrial chemical store and they have to break-in to get a hold of it. To get through the heavy locks, Walt uses the thermite reaction to burn them down. The reaction takes place between metal oxides e.g. iron oxide with a reactive metal powder e.g. aluminium. The reaction will produce iron metal and aluminium oxide. The reaction is quite exothermic and is usually used to weld train tracks or burn out the locks, as shown in the series.

6) The Makeshift Battery

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With their car battery dead and without any juice in their cellphones, Walt again uses his knowledge of chemistry to save them from getting stranded in the desert. Walt makes an improvised and very basic battery out of acid, different metals and wires and explains the chemistry to Jesse. If you put two different metals in an acid, the difference in chemical reactivity between the metals produces a voltage. It's a basic electrochemical cell. Though Walt's explanation is fairly exact but such a simple battery would not be able to provide the tiny amount of the power required to turn over an RV engine.

16638   11/10/2014

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