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Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater, University of Connecticut – Dissolving Acids

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut continues his examination of the chemistry of the show Breaking Bad. Today he discusses Walter White's use of acids to make evidence disappear. 

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 – Dissolving Acids

In the hit TV show “Breaking Bad”, disgruntled chemistry teacher Walter and his co-conspirators have to get rid of a dead body. Instead of just burying it in the ground out of sight, they decide to make it completely disappear. Walter’s accomplice Jesse decides to fill his bath tub with hydrofluoric acid and stick the corpse in there. The body does indeed start to disappear, but not before the bathtub also dissolves, then the floorboards, dropping the ghastly remains all over the corridor below.

So what went wrong? Well hydrofluoric acid, which is a solution of the chemical compound hydrogen fluoride in water, eats through many materials, the only real exceptions being some plastics. That’s why it is stored in plastic bottles and not glass bottles like many other acids. If Jesse had taken Walter’s advice and picked a plastic container and not the bath tub, the venture may have been more successful. Using hydrofluoric acid, Jesse also risked serious harm to himself, because the acid can pass unhindered through body tissue, causing deep burns, and once absorbed into blood through the skin, it also reacts with blood calcium and may cause a heart attack. Jesse would have been better off using a base rather than an acid. Sodium hydroxide, or lye as it’s often called, would be a much superior choice. It is much easier to handle, yet could still dissolve flesh and bone. And as it’s found in many common drain cleaners, it won’t dissolve the bath tub. So even though acids are often thought of as the most dangerous chemicals, their opposites, bases, can be just as destructive over time.

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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