Breaking Bad: Thermite a dynamite way to burglarize

Jesse and Walt prepare to make a drug deal.

The AMC television show Breaking Bad revolves around the story of Walt White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Concerned about the financial situation of his family, consisting of his pregnant writer wife Skyler and son Walter Jr., who has severe cerebral palsy, Walt partners with one of his former students (Jesse) to begin cooking and selling methamphetamine. Tensions break out as his family discovers his illness and he tries to hide his illegal activities from his brother in law, Hank, who is an agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

The show features a lot of science and chemical jargon. But is it accurate? The answer is yes, according to script managers and associate producers.

After partnering with the resident drug lord rather than dealing meth in small quantities, Walt and Jesse begin to make exorbitantly higher profits. The profit, however, requires more of the drug to be cooked. Walt proposed two pounds a week, a plan to which the boss Tuco readily agrees. Jesse has objections to Walt’s demands of creating so much meth, pointing out that his smurfs could not possibly purchase the required amount of allergy pills to fuel the need for pseudoephedrine. In response to this issue, Walt comes up with a new method for producing meth: reductive amination of phenylacetone with methylamine.

Reductive amination is a valid way to cook meth, though it is not in common use. Methylamine gives off a strong odor of fish, so most labs using the method are quickly busted.

Another problem arises when the duo realizes that methylamine is a controlled substance. Therefore, they concoct a plan to steal a barrel of the chemical from a chemical supplier warehouse. Walt has an epiphany about how to go about the task when he sees an old Etch-a-Sketch in Jesse’s garage.

By mixing the aluminum powder in the drawing toys with a metal oxide – probably iron(III) oxide due to its easy availability – Walt makes thermite, which he uses to melt through the padlock at the chemistry warehouse.

Walt and Jesse make thermite from Etch-a-Sketches.

Though thermite is not explosive, it will reach very high temperatures very quickly when heat is applied. The chemical reaction occurring is as follows: Fe2O3 + 2Al → 2Fe + Al2O3 + heat. The reaction will yield temperatures of roughly 2500 degrees Celsius. Though the use of thermite to burn through a simple steel door is realistic, it is unlikely that the two would-be robbers standing next to the door would not get burned.

While the chemistry is accurate, the producers of Breaking Bad may want to brush up on their history. Walt mentions that thermite was used by an Allied commando to destroy the Gustav Gun, a gigantic cannon the German military used in World War II. No such incident is recorded; rather, the Germans destroyed it in 1945 to prevent it from being taken over and used by the Allies.

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