Did ‘Breaking Bad’ help meth producers?

Has meth kingpin Walter White been an inspiration?
Credit: Metro World News

If you’re still sad about the hit TV series ending, why not pay your own tribute by manufacturing some 99 percent pure meth of your own using the onscreen recipes?

Not so fast, says electrochemist Dr. Falk Harnisch, of the Helmholtz-Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, who has examined the chemistry used by Walt, Jesse et al.

Metro: What is the most impressive science on the show?

Harnisch: In general, the chemistry is depicted very well and close to reality in “Breaking Bad.” This is in clear contrast to other shows like, for example, “CSI.” My favorite, as an electrochemist, is the makeshift battery Walter builds in the desert to restart the engine of the RV.

Do you believe professional chemists can improve illegal drug markets?

We have no practical or personal experience in the drug business. However, from the health perspective, it should be preferable to have pure substances. This could be achieved for some drugs in general by a legally controlled drug delivery, where quality standards have to be obeyed. Yet, as far as I know the effects of crystal meth are so severe that legalization is certainly not an option.

What efforts have been made to avoid inspiring drug dealers?

The best example is that the crystal synthesis is shown very realistic, but important details are not discussed. It is not entirely clear which sources Jesse gets certain ingredients for the new synthesis from (e.g. thorium oxide catalyst). Mercury aluminum amalgam can be used as a catalyst for the reduction, as discussed by Walter and Jesse, but only shows how aluminum granulate is added to the reactor.

Further, the synthesis is shown in a visually appealing manner, but details like temperature-time regimes, concentrations and stirring are not considered. Yet all these details are essential for a successful synthesis.

What has been the show’s impact on chemistry and science?

I strongly hope that the show will provide the public with a more realistic picture on what chemistry can do and how chemists work. Maybe it will also inspire young people in choosing chemistry and other natural sciences as a job opportunity.


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