The science of Breaking Bad: Over

Breaking Bad : Season 2 : Episode 10: “Over”

Walt investigates the water heater.

Walt investigates the water heater.

With a little down-time, Walt embarks on some home improvement and Worst Role Model projects. In this post, I’ll be talking about safety matches.

You can read more about this episode at AMC, IMDb and the A.V. Club.

Random thoughts

When Walt is extolling the virtues of the new water heater to Walt Jr, he says that it’s “117,000 BTUs.” The British thermal unit is an older unit of energy that has now been effectively replaced by the joule.

When Walt was walking away from the would-be-meth-cooker’s abandoned equipment, I was certain that he’d mutter “amateur” under his breath.

Phosphorous in matches

Our uninformed cooks are buying matches for a source of red phosphorous, which is required in the red, white and blue process to convert (pseudo)ephedrine to methamphetamine. Walt points out that they need the striker strips rather than the match heads – “strike-anywhere” matches do contain phosphorous, but the safety matches that are more or less ubiquitous these days do not. The dangerous components are segregated into the strips and heads, which means that matches cannot ignite by accident (e.g. on cowboy stubble).

Matches are (intentionally) ignited through friction – dragging the head against a rough surface generates enough heat to convert some red phosphorous (in the striker strip) into highly reactive white phosphorous, which then ignites upon contact with the air. This additional heat is enough to decompose an oxidising agent in the match head (usually potassium chlorate), releasing oxygen. The oxygen-rich atmosphere around the match head plus the heat from the white phosphorous are enough to ignite the main component (sulfur), which burns for long enough to set the wooden matchstick alight. The characteristic smell of a burning match is caused by sulfur dioxide, with perhaps a dash of carbon (soot) and phosphorous pentoxide.

Elements in the credits

Breaking Bromine
Bad Barium
Created Chromium
Bryan Cranston Bromine
AnNa Gunn Sodium
AAron Paul Argon
DeaN Norris Nitrogen
Betsy Brandt Beryllium
RJ MitTe Tellurium
Krysten Ritter Krypton
Christopher Cousins Cobalt
John de Lancie Lanthanum
Steven MicHael Quezada Hydrogen
Carmen SErano Erbium
LynNe Willingham Neon
Robb Wilson King Tungsten
MiChael Slovis No such element
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
SherrY Thomas Yttrium
Sam Catlin Calcium
StewArt A. Lyons Argon
Melissa Bernstein Beryllium
John ShiBan Barium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
Karen Moore Molybdenum
MoiRa Walley-Beckett Radium
Phil AbrahAm Americium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

I’m not sure why Michael Slovis wasn’t assigned iodine (I), carbon (C), hydrogen (H), sulfur (S), oxygen (O) or vanadium (V).


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