As a chemistry professor, I find it particularly appalling when a member of the profession goes astray. That is just what Professor Bradley Allen Rowland did at Henderson State University in Arkansas. In a real-life version of the hit TV show "Breaking Bad” Rowland was caught making methamphetamine. And he was caught because it seems he was somewhat clumsy.
The synthesis of methamphetamine, or “crystal meth” is a huge clandestine industry. “Breaking Bad” captivated television audiences with a storyline about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with lung cancer and worries about the financial security of his family after his demise, which appears to be imminent. He knows that producing crystal meth can be very lucrative and uses his chemical knowledge to start “cooking” the stuff. The chemistry in the show is basically accurate and is described in quite some detail.
At first, Walter pursues a synthetic method starting from pseudoephedrine, a substance that can be extracted from some commercial cold remedies. This is a well-known underground method, and as a result, governments have restricted the sales of products containing pseudoephedrine. Walter then is forced to look for other starting materials and a literature search reveals that phenylacetic acid is suitable since it can be converted into phenylacetone which in turn can be transformed into methamphetamine. Phenylacetic acid can be readily found in chemistry labs and Walter’s business mushrooms. The conversion of phenylacetic acid into phenylacetone is not a simple reaction, which is why clandestine chemists would rather get their hands on phenylacetone as a starting material. When governments noted an increased demand for this chemical they took action and restricted sales.
Now we get to Bradley Allen Rowland, a would-be real-life Walter White. As an organic chemist, he knew that phenylacetone can be easily made in the lab from acetone and benzyl chloride. Neither of these is a restricted substance, so Rowland was off and running. Maybe he was literally running because he spilled a bottle of benzyl chloride. This is a potent lachrymator, nasty stuff indeed. The fumes spread through the chemistry building and prompted an investigation that revealed the chemist’s nefarious activities.
Unlike White, Rowland apparently was synthesizing meth for personal use. He pleaded guilty to manufacturing a controlled substance and was sentenced to four months in jail. He also had to enrol in a substance abuse program and pay the University $150,000 as restitution for the cost of cleaning up the benzyl chloride spill. The chemistry building had to be closed for three weeks!
Had Rowland handled the benzyl chloride more carefully, he might still be “cooking” meth in his lab. A colleague, Terry Bateman, who had also been accused of being involved in methamphetamine synthesis, was acquitted. There was no evidence he had engaged in any such lab work, the only evidence seemed to be a number of scientific papers in his office describing methamphetamine synthesis. For this, he had a ready explanation. His students had been asking about the chemistry depicted in Breaking Bad. It is interesting chemistry indeed. “Breaking Bad,” apparently a colloquial expression for “raising hell,” is entertaining and worth watching. And they have left out enough details to ensure that nobody will learn how to cook meth from the show and “raise hell.” Hell is exactly where addiction to meth can lead.