Is methamphetamine cooked in Breaking Bad chemically possible?

Myth or reality ?

Is methamphetamine cooked in Breaking Bad chemically possible?

Yes and no.

Walt's P2P formula is scientifically accurate, but with one crucial caveat.

Although the actors have learned exactly how to make methamphetamine, what we are shown on screen MUST NOT be precise enough to allow a fan of the series to make methamphetamine! The producers of the series obviously didn't want to give people ideas about how to make methamphetamine, did they?

In 2011, NPR interviewed the show's scientific advisor, Donna Nelson, who assured that you can't learn how to make meth by watching Breaking Bad. While the manufacturing process is accurately portrayed in the series, the creators and scientists have been careful to omit some of the most important steps to ensure that no one can make this drug at home.

"That was actually one of the concerns of a lot of people, but Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad's creator] was very clever. If you just follow the synthesis as it's presented, you don't make methamphetamine," said Nelson.

THE MYTH OF COLOR

Methamphetamine that is pure, or at least as pure as Walter White's standards imply (>99%) would not be blue, but would appear as white or translucent crystals.

Breaking Bad is generally quite accurate scientifically, although the series often intentionally leaves things out to discourage potential amateur cooks from attempting to copy the series, and they take certain creative liberties (such as the way Walter's reductive amination of phenylacetone with methylamine magically produces a D-anti-specific product as opposed to a racemic, lol). This is explained more clearly below].

That said, I think it would be reasonable to assume that the concept of "blue meth" was conceived by the authors of Breaking Bad as a screenwriting device to give Walter's product a clear visual identifier that would assert its presence in the drug trade. Indeed, this plays out several times, with characters often referring to it as "the blue stuff" or "Blue Sky".

And there are other beliefs in the series: for example, it's not so difficult to get methylamine!

THE MYTH OF METHYLAMINE

This was explained by Daniel Lametti at Slate (Does Breaking Bad Get the Science Right?), but is worth repeating. Much of the series is based on Jesse and Walt's efforts to obtain methylamine, a precursor chemical. In reality, much of the production of methamphetamine uses pseudoephedrine, the active ingredient in some over-the-counter cold medications such as Sudafed. But restrictions on sales of Sudafed have made it difficult for methamphetamine manufacturers to obtain it. (Sudafed is still in pharmacies, but not on the shelves).

Obtaining this methylamine has been difficult for them. They looted a warehouse to get it, and in the fifth season they robbed a train to get it. But the reality is that you don't have to do all this to get it. I'll let Lametti explain:

Chemically speaking, methylamine is just ammonia with one hydrogen atom replaced by a methyl group - one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms. Without going into too much detail, a simple way to achieve this reaction is to "bubble" ammonia (a gas) through methanol (a liquid) that has been mixed with a dehydrating agent such as silica gel. You could probably buy these chemicals at The Home Depot and CVS. Silica gel packets are often packaged in new shoes and electronics to keep them dry.

So why are Walt and Jesse stealing methylamine? Although making a thousand liters of the chemical would be expensive, the cost is paltry compared 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 the fact that Walt and Jesse are stealing methylamine makes for a good plot).

I don't really accept the idea that buying a lot of ammonia and methanol would arouse more suspicion than robbing a train, so I think the "it makes a good story" explanation prevails here. Still, it's a really important plot point, with much of the first half of season five revolving around how to get it, how to divide it up among the gang members, etc., so it's quite surprising that Vince Gilligan never bothered to explain why the main characters couldn't make methylamine themselves.

THE P2P MYTH

At the beginning of the show, Walt abandons the actual technique of transforming Sudafed, the over-the-counter decongestant, into meth. Sudafed - closely monitored by the DEA (the American Narcotics Enforcement Agency) - is a must for any budding meth cook.

One way around this problem is to use "smurfs" - individual Sudafed buyers who each buy a small amount to avoid suspicion and then sell it to the manufacturer. But at the end of the first season, Jesse and Walt chose to switch to an alternative recipe based on methylamine rather than go to the trouble of getting all that Sudafed because it's much more convenient.

The authors of Breaking Bad are certainly right that Sudafed can be turned into methamphetamine quite easily. Although the effects are very different, pseudoephedrine (the active ingredient in Sudafed) is almost the same molecule as methamphetamine, and the transformation from one to the other takes only a few steps. By combining red phosphorus (scraped off the strike strips of a matchbox) and iodine, a person can create a strong acid that will remove the small clump of hydrogen and oxygen that separates Sudafed from methamphetamine. But the P2P method is a little more complicated. You have to put the molecule together piece by piece.

P2P derives its homonym from phenyl-2-propanone, the intermediate molecule made by Walter White. P2P shares the same basic form as methamphetamine and Sudafed. Like a passe partout, it is a circular carbon loop (called a phenyl ring) with a short carbon neck attached to a few "teeth" of chemical groups. To turn P2P into meth, all you have to do is change the "teeth".

In fact, as in the series, the DEA is well aware of this process and is closely monitoring P2P. To avoid detection, White synthesizes his P2P from a particular organic compound that any decent chemist could create. (Jessie Pinkman, Walt's former junkie partner, is mocked by a cartel chemist for her inability to make acid).

In Breaking Bad, Walt is forced to steal large amounts of methylamine to enable his lab to produce the drug. In reality, and as seen before, Walt would make his own from a few readily available chemicals.

Walt's final steps to finish his meth are to "sharpen" the teeth of the molecular key by adding a dash of hydrogen atoms. This is a process called reductive amination and is also true to life.

Each step in the firing of Walt's P2P reflects the true chemical process. But would this perfectly executed procedure - with the right temperatures, timing and methods - produce almost 100% pure methamphetamine? Not at all.

When Walt adds methylamine to his P2P, he actually creates two types of molecules that are the mirror image of each other. In fact, methylamine can form a tooth on either side of the key, which a chemist can't control. "So you create a 50/50 mixture."

And just as carbon can form diamonds or charcoal, depending on how it's arranged, even subtle changes in molecular structure can lead to radically disparate properties. With some teeth on the wrong side of the key, the mirror molecule of methamphetamine - called the enantiomer - won't do what methamphetamine does to the body and brain. One will make you high and the other is a decongestant. Curiously, this meth enantiomer is the active ingredient in Vicks inhalers.

Right from the start, it reduces the purity of Walt's cook to 50%. You can ignore this problem by considering it to be fiction anyway, but Walt seems to be well aware of it. In "Boxcutter", the first episode of season four, Walt alludes to the problem as he mockingly questions a non-chemist who is trying to copy his formula. "If our reduction is not stereospecific, then how can your product be enantiomerically pure?" Walt asks. In other words, he says: If we make the two mirror molecules, how can this product be pure?

It is likely that the writers simply took liberties, but there is a solution, albeit an unlikely one. And that might explain Walt's pride in his product and his protective eye for his formula: Walt somehow discovered a simple, cheap and brilliant way to make the P2P-methylamine mixture enantiomerically pure. This could be related to the other mystery of Walt's meth: the meth he makes is blue. The color is also very strange because there are no impurities in the P2P process that would make it blue.

Cheers !

fact or fiction
Louis choquet
Louis choquet
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