Thursday, May 12, 2011

Breaking Bad

Chemistry is the study of change. Electrons change their energy levels, Molecules change their bonds, elements combine and change into compounds. It is all of life: the constant, the cycle. Solution, dissolution, over and over and over. Growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating. Really.

That's what Walter White tells his students in the pilot of Breaking Bad. When his life begins to fall apart, he starts synthesizing metamphetamine. The chemistry there is actually pretty simple (let's face it, there are a lot of people making meth out there who ain't the sharpest knives in the place where they keep the knives), but I don't know if I feel comfortable going into it here. Instead let's get into something much more kid-friendly: how to make poison gas. ;) When confronted by two other drug dealers who want to kill Walter and his partner Jesse, he throws some chemicals together and suddenly the bad guys (the badder guys?) are choking on the floor. He tells Jesse "red phosphorus in the presence of moisture and accelerated by heat yields phosphorus hydride, phosphine gas." Actually, not quite, according to Dr. Jonathan Hare. He probably should have used white phosphorus, a different allotrope of phosphorus. Allotropes are different ways of arranging atoms of just one element. For instance, both graphite and diamond are allotropes of carbon. White phosphorus consists of four atoms arranged at the points of a tetrahedron. When this is heated over 250 degrees Celsius, it transforms into red phosphorus, which is an amorphous network of phosphorus atoms. You probably know red phosphorus best from wooden matches. Anyway, when white phosphorus is heated with water at basic pH, phosphine gas is indeed produced.

P4 + 3 NaOH + 3 H2O ? 3N aH2PO2 + PH3

Orion Pax made this awesome rendition of Walter's RV

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