Not your average high school chemistry teacher by a long shot, Walter White really knows his science. Indeed, the former Nobel honoree is something of a MacGyver when it comes to using chemical formulas to get out of sticky situations. Whatever the problem, Walt will find a solution in the recesses of his scientific mind. Herewith, ten memorable displays of White’s scientific expertise as seen thus far in the series.
1. Pure Meth
“You know the business. And I know the chemistry,” Walt tells Jesse upon proposing a business partnership in meth. He isn’t kidding either. After schooling his former student on the difference between a boiling flask and a volumetric one, Walt cooks up the most chemically pure, stable batch of crystal the Southwest has ever seen. “You’re an artist,” Jesse exclaims. Walt replies, it’s just “basic chemistry.”
2. Phosphine Gas
Cook up a batch of perfect glass and some bad-ass is eventually going to want the recipe. Enter Krazy-8 and Emilio, who hold Walt at gunpoint in his RV meth lab and demand his formula. What they don’t know is that red phosphorous — a key ingredient in the meth-making process — yields a poisonous phosphine gas when combined with moisture and heat. That stuff kills in “one good whiff,” according to Walt. True for Emilio. Less so, for Krazy-8.
3. Disincorporating Emilio
How to dispose of a dead body? Chemical disincorporation. Hydrofluoric acid, Walt reasons, will turn Emilio to slush. While that science lesson is easy for Jesse to grasp, Walt’s partner’s disregards Walt’s note to dissolve Emilio in a polyethylene bin and uses his porcelain bathtub instead. The result? Emilio’s remains crash through Jesse’s ceiling. “Hydrofluoric acid won’t eat through plastic,” Walt lectures. “It will, however, dissolve rock, steel, glass and ceramic.”
4. Cataloguing the Human Body
Mopping up liquefied human remains can make a man reflect. In Walt’s case, the chore brings him back to the day he tried to catalog the composition of the human body with former flame Gretchen: 63% hydrogen, 26% oxygen, 9% carbon, 1.25% nitrogen, .25% calcium, .00004% iron, .04% sodium and .19% phosphorous. That leaves .111958% unaccounted for. “What about the soul?” Gretchen asks. Walt has no answer for this one.
5. Gray Matter
Once upon a time, Walt’s scientific efforts served higher purposes. At Cal Tech, he and lab partner Elliott Schwartz began what would one day lead to Nobel Prize-nominated research for Gray Matter Technologies. (Schwartz is Yiddish for “black”, making Walt the “white” in Gray Matter.) Among Walt’s contributions was the discovery that using synchotrons generates purer and more complete patterns than X-ray beams, and therefore collects data more efficiently.
6. Mercury Fulminate
Chemical reactions, Walt teaches, result from changes in matter and energy. The faster the change, the more violent the reaction. Mercury fulminate, which decomposes into mercury, carbon monoxide and nitrogen, is an example of a rapid reaction. Conveniently, this chemical compound takes a crystalline shape that looks like meth so when Walt needs to intimidate the psychotic meth dealer Tuco, he uses fulminated mercury to cause an explosion in Tuco’s hideout. “A little tweak of chemistry,” Walt tells Tuco. Good thing Tuco didn’t snort any of it.
7. The Blue Meth
By now the blue meth is so synonymous with Heisenberg, you might have forgotten that Walt once cooked the clear stuff. But when Walt promises Tuco two pounds of meth per week, his partner questions: “What about the pseudo, man? How’re we gonna get that?” Jesse is referring to pseudophedrine, a decongestant so associated with cooking meth that it’s become a government-controlled substance. (Walt’s new quota would require 150 boxes of sinus pills a week.) Walt has another idea: Create phenylacetone from methylamine. The only difference? The signature blue.
8. Thermite Bomb
Of course, methylamine is almost as hard to procure as pseudophedrine, so Walt and Jesse decide to raid a chemical warehouse protected by “one big-ass lock.” Not a problem for this high school chem teacher who mixes the aluminum powder from a few Etch-a-Sketches with iron oxide to create thermite — a compound capable of melting through four inches of solid steel.
No, not rice and beans, Jesse. In the late ’70s the KGB extracted ricin poison from castor beans and modified the tip of an umbrella to inject a pellet into a Bulgarian dissident, thereby killing him. And if it worked for the Soviet Union, why shouldn’t it work for Walt and Jesse when they decide to dispose of Tuco? The science may be sound, but not even Heisenberg can account for the uncertainty of Tuco’s ailing uncle Tio: He rats Walt and Jesse out before the ricin can do its thing.
10. Building a Better Battery
When Jesse accidentally drains the RV’s battery, stranding him and Walt in the desert, Walt again experiments under pressure. Specifically, he divides a small polypropylene container in half with a sponge soaked in potassium hydroxide, then fills one side with mercuric oxide and graphite from the RV’s brake pads and the other with pocket change. When he connect the two via a copper wire, the brake pads make a negative charge, the zinc from the coins makes a positive charge and the sponge acts as the electrolyte that separates them. It’s not the robot Jesse wanted, but Walt’s makeshift battery saves their lives by jump-starting the RV.