The science of Breaking Bad: Salud

Breaking Bad | Season 4 | Episode 10 | “Salud”

Mike, Gus and Jesse head off to show the Cartel how it's done.

Mike, Gus and Jesse head off to show the Cartel how it's done.

Jesse’s Adventures in Mexico take a decidedly assertive turn, as he wows the Cartel with his cooking skills and then assists in their demise. Back in the USA, Saul’s instincts about Skylar’s use of the drug money prove correct. In this post, I’ll be talking briefly about the methods we see the Cartel’s cooks using.

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

Short-order cooks

Jesse is right to berate the Cartel’s chemists – the dirt and messiness in the lab is a disgrace. Whichever university the chief chemist went to (possibly a British one from his accent), its practical standards were woefully lacking.

The chief chemist dissolves some of Jesse’s product in a solvent, and then injects it into what is almost certainly a gas chromatograph. As we mentioned in Box Cutter, this separates the components of a chemical mixture and is the kind of machine that Gale wanted to check the purity of Walt’s product. The Cartel will only be investigating the ratio of methamphetamine to other components, which is why they don’t need to be very accurate when making up the test solution.

From the look of the computer screen, the gas chromatograph is connected to a mass spectrometer, so that components may be identified as they come off the column. However, the size of the machine is only about right for a gas chromatograph alone (even the smaller mass spectrometers tend to be about the size of four microwave ovens).

No GC-MS set-ups have a digital purity readout – when I saw the numbers climbing, I assumed that they represented the temperature inside the column (most GCs have this kind of temperature gradient). The purity (i.e. percentage of methamphetamine relative to other non-solvent products) would be displayed on the computer, or calculated later.

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
BOb Odenkirk Oxygen
Giancarlo Esposito Einsteinium
JonAthan Banks Astatine
Christopher CoUsins Uranium
Maurice Compte Cobalt
Carlo Rota Calcium
Steven Bauer Barium
Kelley Dixon Potassium
Mark FreeboRn Radon
MiChael Slovis Carbon
Dave Porter Polonium
Sharon Bialy Sulfur
Sherry Thomas Thorium
BrYan Cranston Yttrium
Diane MerCer Cerium
Moira Walley-Beckett Molybdenum
Thomas SchnAuz Gold
George Mastras Germanium
PeTer Gould Tellurium
Sam Catlin Calcium
Melissa Bernstein Beryllium
MicHelle MacLaren Helium
Mark JOhnson Oxygen
StewArt A. Lyons Argon
Peter Gould Phosphorous
Gennifer HuTchison Technetium
Michelle MacLaRen Rhenium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

7 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Salud

  1. Daedalus says:

    Surely GLC, with or without Mass Spec, is not appropriate to a solid such as meth, especially if its the hydrochloride. GLC relies on vapor passing thru the column and being delayed by its affinity with whatever is used as the static phase (e.g. a non-polar grease).

    Liquid Chromatography would make more sense. Not that I know much about HPLC, since it appeared after I quit being a chemist.

    And you wouldn’t use MS either. A properly calibrated column would give you the relative fractions of materials without the bother of analyzing a fragmentation spectrum.

    • John says:

      I agree, though I think that methamphetamine vapourises around 550 K which might just make it suitable for analysis by GC. The reason I mentioned MS is that you can see a fragmentation pattern on the computer screen instead of eluent peaks.

  2. oddsratio says:

    I followed this from r/breakingbad on reddit. Nice write-ups. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on the poison used at the end of the episode, or if the reactions are too generic/ too much of a fiction.

    • John says:

      Initially, I thought that Jesse might have given Walt’s ricin to Gus, but it was too fast-acting and Gus would probably not have been able to avoid its effects the way he did. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get enough information (about how death was caused or what it tasted like) to speculate as to what it was – if I had to hazard a guess, I would assume that it was some kind of cyanide (but I don’t know if there’s anything that Gus could have taken to increase his chances of survival).

  3. I wondered the same thing about putting a solid like meth into a GC, so thanks for clearing that up!

  4. Dc says:

    The GC is definitely showing temp on the red display. Nice and easy for TV to say it is purity. It looked like it said temperature below the display.

    • O. David Sparkman says:

      The way GC works is to dissolve a small amount of the solid meth in a solvent such as methlyene chloride and inject about 1 uL into the hot injection port. The meth is vaporized and moves down the column separated from other compounds and the solvent. The purity of the meth is determined by how much (% by wt) of the material put in is meth base on the area under the GC peak for the meth and the are for the other substances sans the solvent. This is the way most police agencies analysis to determine the purity of seized meth.

      In Season 4 Episode 10, the GC is shown (as discussed above). Who is the manufacturer of the GC? I know; do you?.

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