Pseudoscience strikes again. About a month ago, over at Slate's Brow Beat culture blog, Mr. Daniel Lametti - he of 'Ph.D.-Waste-Of-Time' fame - wrote a piece analyzing a recurring Breaking Bad plot device: the theft of large quantities of methylamine for the characters' illegal methamphetamine operation. The meat of the post:
Wait, huh? Let's start from No.
As a practicing synthetic organic chemist, I agree with the statement that silica gel dehydrates solvents by water absorption. Sure. But I've heated plenty of alcohols in the presence of silica gel, and 99% of them don't spontaneously lose water! (That would be a rocking olefin synthesis, if it worked...)
|Methylamine: Easy as hooking up five pressurized reactors in your kitchen sink.|
In this scenario, both are extremely unlikely, especially at room temperature and pressure.
Now let's talk practicality: which company will sell you a cylinder of ammonia gas for 'home use?' (Not Home Depot). How will you get your methanol? What's the plan to isolate the (volatile, stinky) methylamine from the complex mixture of compounds this theoretical reaction produces?
Well, how do companies make methylamine? Albemarle technical documents to the rescue! Seems that mixing methanol and excess ammonia at 300-500 degrees Celsius, under pressure, over a zeolite catalyst will produce an equilibrium mixture of methylamine, dimethylamine, and trimethylamine (favored). After fractional distillation, the trimethylamine can be streamed over an amorphous silica / alumina catalyst to disproportionate it back into methylamine.
Not a kitchen sink in sight.
Update, 8/17/13 - This piece jumped back into the spotlight as Breaking Bad winds down its 5-season run. Thanks to Dylan at WaPo's Wonkblog for linking back here.
Commenters have taken issue with my description of the reaction, so I've slightly changed the text for clarity (methods / mechanisms, "forms" cations, oxidation...)
8/19/13 - Arguments have cropped up, in multiple forums, about reagent availability, feasibility of the chemistry at small-scale, mechanism, purification, etc. I blame myself for not refining my argument well enough in the original post. Very directly, I'll re-state the major arguments:
1) The silica gel + methanol + ammonia route will not produce methylamine as stated
2) Although an experienced chemist *could* produce methylamine using different reactions in a kitchen sink, he will by no means produce enough to support a burgeoning criminal enterprise which manufactures methamphetamine at multi-kilo scale.
*Curious - Appended at the bottom of the essay is a thanks for Prof. Adam Braunschweig, faculty