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Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater, University of Connecticut – Walter White’s Meth

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut begins a three-day examination of the chemistry of the hit television show Breaking Bad. Today, he discusses why Walter White’s product was so unique. 

Nicholas Leadbeater is an associate professor of organic and inorganic chemistry at the University of Connecticut, where he heads the New Synthetic Methods Group. Leadbeater and the NSMG research cleaner and more efficient methods for creating synthetic materials. Dr. Leadbeater holds a Ph.D. from Cambridge University, where he was a research fellow until 1999.

About Dr. Leadbeater

Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater – Walter White’s Meth

On the blockbuster TV show “Breaking Bad”, down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher Walter decides to make some money for his family by producing narcotics. He uses his chemistry background to make N-methylamphetamine, known as crystal or meth. Converting over-the-counter pseudoephedrine, a decongestant, to meth takes two steps and releases the highly toxic gas phosphine. But the real problem is that the amount of pseudoephedrine in each box of cold remedy is pretty small so they’d need a lot of boxes to be able to make a reasonable amount of meth. Walt would have to go to multiple pharmacies every day just to get enough starting material, so he takes a different approach. He decides to react a compound called phenyl acetone, or P2P, with another chemical called methylamine. This gives what Walt and his cronies tout as the best and purest meth on the market.

However, they may have been overselling their creation. Some chemicals exist as two separate compounds that look the same but are mirror images of each other, kind of like your own two hands.  In the case of meth, one hand of the compound is very good at giving you a high while the other is not. When using pseudoephedrine, the starting material is made up of only one hand of the molecule, making the meth product pure. With his P2P approach, Walter makes an equal amount of both hands. So you would expect this product not to be as potent as it could be. But, if you’ve seen any of the show, you’ll probably agree that it’s not worth arguing with him about it! He’ll just use chemistry to blow you up or try to dissolve you!

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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