The science of Breaking Bad: Hazard Pay

Breaking Bad | Season 5 | Episode 3 | “Hazard Pay”

New lab, new uniforms.

New lab, new uniforms.

Our newly-formed co-op pulls out all the stops to ensure that the flow of blue meth can continue uninterrupted, and an entire generation of television viewers loses trust in house-fog exterminators. Is Walt going to be content with only earning $137,000 per cook? Past actions would suggest not.

This episode is reviewed at Emilia Jordan and the A.V. Club, and you can read more about it at AMC and IMDb.

Random thoughts

Walt discovers a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in his moving-in box – a pathos-tinged callback to the late, lamented Gale (though Walt seems entirely unmoved).

Huell can sleep standing up! I don’t think that this is significant.

Steam and salt will “ruin the product” because Walt and Jesse air-dry their crystals (you can see the trays later in the episode). If the humidity is high, the water (or other solvent) in the meth-containing solution will not evaporate, or will evaporate at the wrong rate. This could ruin the crystallisation process. High levels of salt in the air could also precipitate out into the product, or foul equipment. Saul’s dehumidifier comment isn’t actually too far off – our cook team could quite easily perform the crystallisation in a controlled environment such as a sealed fume cupboard.

Loved Jesse’s tortilla-grab, but would they really be coming out of the oven into the open air?

Vamonos Pest uses cyfluthrin for its fogging work, and also has a shelves full of bromadiolone and glyphosate (better known as Roundup). They also use sulfuryl fluoride and chloropicrin. People must really hate insects in Albuquerque.

We get to see a partial equipment diagram this week: “ultra high purity recirc pump”, “high pressure extractors”, “low pressure filtration”, “agitator”, “internal plate column”. It looks like a product in a small vessel is extracted and passed through a separation column or condenser to end up in a larger, stirred vessel with either a product or some undesired waste filtered out. According to the paper, this is stage 4. It’s hard to take much away from this, but given what we know of the reaction process this is probably one of the later purification stages to isolate the final product. Jesse is turning into quite the resourceful chemical engineer here.

I’m not entirely sure how long it takes Walt and Jesse to do a full start-to-finish cook (including equipment set-up and take-down), but the show has suggested in other episodes that it’s a good 10-12 hours. Does that mean that Vamonos Pest now have to extend their “fogging” time, potentially hurting the legitimate business?

Our cooks have an excellent, portable set-up – it actually reminds me of a spectroscopy lab with different instruments for analysis. I’m amazed that they have enough power to run everything, unless they have a generator outside. I’m also loving the hand-welded vessels and universal connectors (as a graduate student, I had to build a lot of my own equipment).

The paper strip that Walt drips a liquid onto to get a colour change is probably pH indicator paper. This suggests that Walt is using the pH of a mixture as a proxy for determining when a certain reaction has gone to completion. I’m a little surprised by this, as thin-layer chromatography would give a more accurate picture of what stage a reaction is at, and a digital pH meter in the reaction vessel might give a more accurate reading. Still, it’s a reliable and valid testing method.

I’m not sure what piece of kit Jesse is using to pipe the liquid product into the crystallisation trays – it’s kind of like a diffuser, and presumably facilitates a nice, even (i.e. even-drying) layer of a viscous liquid.

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
JonAthan Banks Astatine
Matt JoNes Neon
Emily RiOs Osmium
JEsse Plemons Einsteinium
Mike BaTayeh Tantalum
Franc Ross Francium
Charles Baker Barium
Lavell Crawford Chromium
Skip MAcDonald Actinium
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
AdAm Bernstein Americium
Vince Gilligan Vanadium

5 Responses to The science of Breaking Bad: Hazard Pay

  1. […] Weak Interactions: The Science of Breaking Bad […]

  2. Ellis D. Tripp says:

    Why would they stock glyphosate? It’s an herbicide, not a pesticide…

    • John says:

      Yeah, I wasn’t sure of that either. Maybe they’ve diversified into landscape maintenance and will de-weed your lawn while your house is fogged?

  3. Ellis D. Tripp says:

    That pouring the “blue goo” out into trays and letting it crystallize always bothered me a bit. It makes for cool imagery, but isn’t very accurate as far as I can figure.

    Methamphetamine is typically sold in the form of the hydrochloride salt, as the freebase form is a corrosive, oily liquid. So the liquid freebase would be dissolved in a non-polar solvent, and HCl gas bubbled through the solution. This will cause methamphetamine hydrochloride crystals to form, and being insoluble in non polar solvents, they will precipitate out. They are then filtered out, perhaps recrystallized for additional purity, washed and dried. They showed this process in their very first cook in the pilot episode.

    The gooey liquid drying in pans and spontaneously crystallizing males sense though, when you consider that they are using rock candy as a prop.

  4. Chase says:

    There is a tortilla factory at disneylands california adventures, and yup they come right out of the oven into the air to cool

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