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Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater, University of Connecticut – Instant Poison Gas

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Nicholas Leadbeater of the University of Connecticut concludes his three-day examination of the chemistry of the show Breaking Bad. Leadbeater concludes the series with an examination of one of Walter White’s Greatest Escapes. 


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– Instant Poison Gas

The hit TV show “Breaking Bad” shows how a down-on-his-luck chemistry teacher Walter uses his science knowledge to his benefit to make some money by producing crystal meth. But he fast realizes that violence is commonplace in the narcotics business. When he finds himself in a difficult situation, what does he turn to? Chemistry of course! He needs to get the small-time drug dealers Emilio and Crazy-8, off his case so Walter and his co-conspirators lure them into a trailer where they then throw some red phosphorus into a pot of boiling water, run out and lock the door. Emilio is killed by the resulting poisonous phosphine gas that is formed. But would that really happen? Well, not all phosphorous is created equal. There are a number of so-called allotropes of phosphorous. Allotropes are different arrangements of atoms of the same element. Take for example carbon – two allotropes of that element are diamond and graphite – they have very different properties. Likewise, red and white phosphorous are different. White phosphorous is very reactive and, when exposed to air and water vapor, will catch fire and rapidly generate poisonous phosphine gas. Red phosphorous on the other hand is less reactive and won’t readily lead to the noxious gas. Red phosphorous does, however, have its uses. It is a key ingredient in safety matches. When you strike a safety match, the friction generates heat, converting a small amount of red phosphorus to white phosphorus vapor. The white phosphorus then spontaneously ignites. So, had Walter used the right kind of phosphorous, his boiling chemistry concoction would have indeed proved deadly to his foe.

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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