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Breaking Bad Science Advisor Donna Nelson on the Show’s Real-Life Science

Editor’s Note: Dr. Donna J. Nelson, Professor of Organic Chemistry at University of Oklahoma, has served as a science advisor on Breaking Bad since 2008. In this exclusive essay for, she discusses the explosive potential of Etch-a-Sketch, the technicalities of building an RV battery, and the lethality of ricin.

Breaking Bad may be a fictional show, but much of its science is based in reality. Below is a breakdown of some memorable science moments from the series. Remember that many of these scenes include very dangerous and sometimes illegal activities. In other words, don’t try this at home!

Etch A Sketch Explosives
In Season 1 Episode 7, Walt tasks Jesse with procuring supplies so they can switch their operation to a P2P cook. The only problem is finding the necessary methylamine. Inspired by World War II attempts to disable the Nazi’s Gustav gun (an enormous railway cannon used by Germany against the Soviet Union), Walt combines iron oxide with the aluminum from several Etch A Sketches to creates a thermite bomb, which he and Jesse then use to break into a chemical warehouse housing barrels of methylamine.

The balanced equation for the highly exothermic (heat-releasing) reaction shown on screen is:

Fe2O3 + 2 Al –> 2 Fe + Al2O3

Walt and Jesse use about a pint of thermite in the scene, which would require 553 grams of aluminum (or about 184 original Etch A Sketches). Since we only see ten of them in the scene, we’ll assume the remaining 174 are in a nearby closet.

The tricky part is igniting the thermite, which requires temperatures much hotter than that provided by most safety fuses and open flames. Walt and Jesse may have used a magnesium ribbon fuse, which can be easily lit by a pocket or propane torch and burns hot enough to start the reaction. Once lit, thermite burns at 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit*. The sparks seen on screen are true to a thermite-heat reaction and are actually bits of very hot molten iron.

Rice ‘n’ Beans
In Season 2 Episode 1, Jesse gets a new cooking lesson: how to make poison from beans. Walt concocts a plan to coat a meth batch with ricin and present it to their volatile distributor Tuco, hoping that he’ll sample it then die a few days later of seemingly natural causes. Ricin makes several other appearances throughout the series: In Season 3, Jesse procures enough to poison Gus Fring’s dealers. In Season 4, it’s the planned method to kill Gus himself. Interestingly enough, though prevalent throughout the show, the poison has yet to cause a single fatality.

Ricin prevents cells from creating protein thereby killing the cells and causing death over time. This powerful poison is naturally present in castor beans, and becomes even more deadly as a byproduct of castor oil. Ricin can take the form of powder, mist, or pellets**. Effects of ricin through inhalation — Tuco’s most likely method of ingestion — include vomiting, diarrhea,  dehydration and low blood pressure. This substance is so dangerous that Tuco could’ve displayed symptoms just from sniffing the meth.

Had Tuco truly sampled this tainted meth, he would have had little hope of surviving. There is no antidote to ricin poisoning, and the only treatment is to get it out of the system as quickly as possible.

Building a Battery
In Season 2 Episode 9, Walt and Jesse stage an epic four-day cook session in the desert that produces 42 pounds of meth. When it’s time to pack up and head home, however, the pair discovers that Jesse has left the keys in the ignition thereby killing the battery. After days in the desert without water or hope of rescue, Jesse pleads with Walt to use his scientific know-how to save them.

Walt’s solution? Using galvanized metals (metals with protective zinc coatings), brake pads, and sponges soaked in potassium hydroxide to build a battery.

The guys are off to a great start with the cupric oxide and graphite obtained from the brake pads. Cupric oxide (copper (II) oxide) has long been identified as an impressive cathode material, and its use with graphite makes it more reactive, resulting in a more efficient battery.*** Zinc is a common, effective anode****, and potassium hydroxide (KOH) is often used as the electrolyte in batteries*****. Potassium hydroxide is an alkali metal, so Walt and Jesse have fashioned an alkaline battery. And since KOH is sometimes a component of meth production******, it’s likely Walt and Jesse had plenty lying around.

*United Nuclear. Thermite. (accessed July 30, 2012).
**Centers for Disease Control. Facts About Ricin.  (accessed Aug. 9, 2012)
***Anglin, David; Xue, J. Simon; Wang, Francis. Alkaline cell with improved cathode. U.S. Patent 6,841,302, Jan 11, 2005.
****iPodhajecky, P.; Scrosati, B. Copper oxide cathodes for lithium organic electrolyte batteries. Journal of Power Sources. 1985. 16, 309-317
*****Anglin, David; Xue, J. Simon; Wang, Francis. Alkaline cell with improved cathode. U.S. Patent 6,841,302, Jan 11, 2005.
******Kimbel, Rebecca. Learn About Methamphetamine, Protect Your Self. (accessed Aug. 7, 2012).

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