Why is Heisenberg’s meth blue?

Walt and Jesse are naturally rather anxious when they first present their blue coloured meth to Tuco Salamanca at the end of Breaking Bad’s first season (revisit the scene here). Walt (Heisenberg) explains that his meth is produced by a different chemical process but it’s “every bit as pure.” After sampling the meth, Tuco is impressed: “Blue, yellow, pink, whatever man! Just keep bringing me that!”

rock candy by Hernan Seoane

Following this seminal encounter, Heisenberg’s infamous blue meth sweeps through the Albuquerque area and earns Heisenberg a reputation as the finest meth cook in New Mexico. But why exactly is Heisenberg’s meth blue? The answer may have more to do with symbolism than chemistry.

The fact that Heisenberg’s “pure” meth is coloured blue is a little problematic. The truth of the matter is that pure methamphetamine is either a white powder or a clear crystal (as shown below).

Blue Crystal Meth by Psychonaught

Purity is simply a measure of the “sameness” or homogeneity of a sample. For instance, if a cook was to claim that a sample of meth was 100% pure, they would be claiming that the sample contains absolutely nothing other than meth. By contrast, if they claimed that the meth was 90% pure, they would be claiming that 90% of what’s in the sample is meth while the remaining 10% is something other than meth (i.e. impurities and contaminants). The number and type of impurities making up the remaining 10% would depend on where and how the meth was obtained. High purity is desired both because it means a greater potency (more meth for a given mass of powder) and a reduced proportion of unwanted impurities and by-products (toxic or otherwise).

The trademark “blue sky” colour of Heisenberg’s meth actually speaks against his claims of purity. While it is true that small amounts of impurity can have a large effect on the colour of a sample, absolutely pure methamphetamine would be white/colourless. In short, the colour blue does not signify purity. In this case, the blue colour must owe to the presence of one or more impurities in Heisenberg’s product.

In fairness, nobody is claiming that Heisenberg’s meth is 100% pure. In S4E10 (“Salud”), an instrumental read-out informs us that Heisenberg’s method (as carried out by Jesse in the Cartel lab) yields methamphetamine with a purity of 96%. When carried out by Walt, the same method has given a purity as high as 99%. Real analytical instruments don’t actually come up with a flashing red number to show the purity of the sample (it’s somewhat more complicated than that). Nonetheless, we do know that Heisenberg and Jesse are producing a commendably pure product. We also know that somewhere in the remaining 1-4% of the sample there is a blue coloured impurity.

Breaking Bad screenshot S4E10

However, blue coloured meth is not just a fiction (check out this report from the El Paso Intelligence Center and this post from Kansas City Police Chief, Darryl Forté). The so called “smurf dope” now appearing in the States appears to involve colouring meth with chalk or dyes and pigments. The rationale behind this colouration is unclear. On the one hand, it could be an effort to brand and market the meth. It might also be an attempt to fool a chemical field test for methamphetamine in which a blue colour indicates a positive result. It has also been suggested that this blue meth may be an attempt to emulate Breaking Bad.

Whatever the rationale for colouring meth blue, the fact of the matter is that pure methamphetamine is white/colourless. In this respect, methamphetamine is like pretty much every other organic compound you care to name (an organic compound is a chemical compound based on a carbon chain). Pure organic compounds like methamphetamine are generally pretty bland things to look at with the naked eye. Organic compounds typically present themselves as colourless oils, crystals or powders. Take the common laboratory compound, benzoic acid, for example:

Benzoi[c] acid by Norsci
For another example, consider these crystals of sucrose (table sugar):

Sugar crystals by Lauri Andler (Phantom)
Then there’s menthol, a compound responsible for the cooling effect of peppermint oil:

Menthol by FK1954
For yet another example, think back to “Salude” where Jesse arrives at the Cartel lab to discover that they do not have any phenyl acetic acid. Here’s what phenyl acetic acid looks like:

Phenylacetic_acid_-_Phenylessigsäure by Tmv23
Yep, you guessed it. It’s white.

Of course, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves here. There are a good number of organic molecules that are in fact coloured. Take lycopene for example, a red organic pigment in tomatoes, or indigo dye, an organic compound used to give jeans their trademark denim blue. Aside from organic dyes and pigments, many inorganic compounds are coloured too, especially those containing transition metals (the metals that make up that long rectangular chunk in the middle of the periodic table). Copper (II) sulphate pentahydrate is a representative example, which quite appropriately happens to be blue.

Copper_sulfate by Stephanb
So why is it that some compounds like methamphetamine are white, while others, like the copper sulphate above, are coloured?

The way that a compound appears to us actually depends on whether it absorbs visible light. Like other forms of electromagnetic radiation, visible light behaves like a wave and can be described in terms of its wavelength (i.e. the distance between the crests or troughs of the waves). Our eyes are capable of detecting electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 400 to 700 nanometres. Red light has a wavelength around the 700 nanometre mark while violet light has a wavelength around the 400 nanometre mark. The different wavelengths of visible light and their corresponding colours are represented in the visible spectrum below.

605px-Linear_visible_spectrum by Gringer

It’s no coincidence that the above diagram looks like a rainbow. After all, a rainbow is what we get when white light (which consists of all of the wavelengths of visible light) is “broken up” into its constituent wavelengths by the moisture in the atmosphere.

San Francisco lucky double rainbow by David Yu
Apart from a handful of bright and shiny things like the sun, fire and hot glowing metals, most of the stuff we encounter in everyday life does not give off (emit) visible light. It’s easy to prove this to yourself by simply switching off the light globe in your room. It probably goes without saying that once you have extinguished the light source you won’t be able to see anything anymore (provided it is night-time and discounting stars, light reflected off the moon, and any other possible light sources).

Instead, the way that most things appear to us depends on how they absorb or reflect visible light (not because they emit visible light). If something absorbs every wavelength of visible light then it appears black. If something reflects every wavelength of visible light it appears white. In other cases, a compound will absorb a specific wavelength (colour) of visible light. However, the colour that we see is different to the colour that is absorbed by the compound. For example, the copper sulphate crystals above appear blue because they absorb orange light and reflect all of the other frequencies of light. Conveniently, the observed colour (the colour that we see) is always opposite to the absorbed colour on the colour wheel (see below for a basic colour wheel). For a Minute Physics video on a related topic, follow this link.

ryb color wheel labeled by Leopard Print

Whether a compound will absorb visible light depends on the chemical structure of the compound (the arrangement of atoms and the bonds between them) and its underlying electronic structure (the way in which the electrons and orbitals are arranged in the compound). Many transition metal compounds like copper sulphate have electronic structures that are just right for absorbing visible light. By contrast, organic compounds do not tend to have appropriate electronic structures for absorbing visible light unless they happen to have a whole bunch of alternating double and single bonds in their chemical structure. Since methamphetamine does not have many alternating double and single bonds, it is doomed to a bland colourless existence.

It would appear then that Heisenberg’s meth is blue because it contains one or more impurities that absorb orange/vermillion light and therefore appears to us as blue. Having said all of this, it is really not worth speculating too much about the identity of the impurity in Walt’s meth. Granted, the first batch of meth cooked up by Walt and Jesse is in fact colourless (you can revisit the scene here). The blue contaminant is as an apparent consequence of Walt’s alternative approach to making meth when Jesse can no longer procure pseudoephedrine.

Nonetheless, trying to deduce the nature of the blue impurity is probably a fool’s errand. While Breaking Bad does allude to real approaches to making meth, the specific approach deployed by Walt and Jesse seems to be both a secret and a fiction. Indeed, the “blue sky” colour of the meth appears to be a fictional plot device that serves to differentiate Walt’s meth from other sellers on the Albuquerque streets. As it turns out, blue coloured rock candy was used as the prop for meth on Breaking Bad’s set.

The blue meth in Breaking Bad also connects with name and colour motifs in the show. As NameCandy identifies, the names Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are likely to be allusions to Mr White and Mr Pink in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Vince Gilligan himself has remarked on the role of colour in the representation of Breaking Bad’s characters, including Marie’s consistent association with purple. Furthermore, Walt’s surname “White” arguably reflects the blandness and banality that seems to have overrun Walt’s life at the point of his diagnosis. As 3,4-dihydroxyphen observes, the “blue sky” colour of Walt’s meth also seems to be a subtle play on the name Skyler (who wears predominately blue clothes in early episodes of the series). For two great analyses of how colour is used so deftly in Breaking Bad, check out Great Honk! and Tom’s TV.

Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Elliott (Adam Godley) in Episode 5

In the end, it’s hard to say why Heisenberg’s meth is coloured blue. It really depends on how you interpret the complex use of colour in Breaking Bad. However, we do know one thing for sure. The “blueness” of the meth is not a sign of high purity. As far as its symbolic significance goes, your reading is as good as mine.

Update (24.3.14): Even Breaking Bad‘s science consultant, Donna Nelson, doesn’t have a scientific explanation for the blue colour of Heisenberg’s meth (see interviews here and here, thanks to Elaine Seward for sharing the first of these). Nelson describes the colouring as Heisenberg’s “trademark” but emphasises that real meth would be colourless.

Image credits (in order of appearance)

rock candy by Hernan Seoane
Blue Crystal Meth by Psychonaught
Breaking Bad screenshot S4E10 (Property of AMC/Sony Pictures Television). Intended as fair use.
Benzoi[c] acid by Norsci
Sugar crystals by Lauri Andler (Phantom)
Menthol by FK1954
Phenylacetic_acid_-_Phenylessigsäure by Tmv23
Copper_sulfate by Stephanb
605px-Linear_visible_spectrum by Gringer
San Francisco lucky double rainbow by David Yu
ryb color wheel labeled by Leopard Print
Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Elliott (Adam Godley) in Episode 5 (season 1) (Property of AMC/Sony Pictures Television). Intended as fair use.

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Comments
27 Responses to “Why is Heisenberg’s meth blue?”
  1. sammyshaheen says:

    Just a note on the 96.2% you used earlier, that’s actually Jessie’s attempt at the blue meth. Walt’s is supposed to be around 99% pure, as Gale tells Gus in the lab.

  2. Thanks to all of the fans who have pointed out that Jesse’s attempt at synthesising meth in the Cartel lab falls short of the purity achieved by Walt (99%). I have corrected this above. Whether the purity is 99% or 96%, the blue colour still arises from an impurity in the meth. As noted above, the impurity need only be present in small amounts to have an effect on the colour of the whole sample. The meth can still be 99% pure and contain blue impurities.

    Also as noted above, while the blue impurity arises in the show as a consequence of Walt’s synthetic approach (reductive amination of phenyl acetone with methylamine), it is difficult to account for how this process (or some new variation of it) would give rise to a blue impurity. The blue colour is therefore fictional and performs a symbolic role in the show. The meaning of this symbolism is open to interpretation.

    • julie says:

      The PH can also effect the color, acidic being red or pink and basic being blue or purple.

      • Thanks for your comment Julie. If a pH indicator (such as phenolphthalein) is added to a solution, the colour of the solution is indeed an indication of the pH (the colour will vary according to the specific indicator used). However, in a synthesis context (as opposed to doing titrations) it is usually more convenient and desirable to take a very small drop of the solution and add it to indicator paper (i.e adding a small amount of solution to indicator rather than adding indicator to the solution). In this way there’s no risk of the solution (or the final product) being contaminated by the indicator just for the sake of checking the pH.

        In order for the solid meth to be coloured blue by residual indicator, Heisenberg’s indicator would presumably need to form an insoluble salt that is coloured blue. This seems rather unlikely to me (though I would need to do some research to comment on whether it is feasible or not).

        As such, I would suggest that indicator does not account for the blue colour of Heisenberg’s meth.

        • p.s. you can see Walt using indicator paper very briefly in the cooking scene in season 2, episode 9 (shortly after he is shown cutting up some aluminum foil). There may be other instances too.

  3. onebad says:

    the blue is a metaphor. the color in the meth is based on a true case, a group of bikers who had connections to a chem student began to market their product with a purple tinge. it told the public that it was pure. it has been adopted by the mexican cartels as of present, because most production now happens below the border

  4. carl johnson says:

    but what about the new method of making meth using methylene blue? since sudafed is hard to get in large doeses, and methlyene is so hard to get, but people can easily get methlylene blue from aquarium and pet stores. and it turns meth blue, by absorbing light?

    • Carl, I am not familiar with the method you are referring to and I am not sure what role the methylene blue would play in the synthesis since methylene blue is used as a stain or indicator (see http://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/summary/summary.cgi?cid=6099 ). As you point out, it is also used as an antifungal agent in fish tanks. However, methylene blue is a very different compound to methylamine. It is methylamine (together with other compounds) that Heisenberg uses to make meth after the sudafed supply runs out in season one.

      It is possible that contamination of the meth with methylene blue (for whatever reason) could give rise to a blue coloured product. However, it is worth noting that while methylene blue is blue in solution, it is green in powder form. I did come across this article from a Thai news outlet that may be of interest about students taking methylene blue in an attempt to fool drug detection agencies by colouring their urine blue: http://www.phuketgazette.net/archives/articles/2012/article12282.html.

  5. Cameron says:

    Methylamine is a gas under normal conditions. It’s sometimes dissolved in a solution of ethanol in order to be sold as a liquid for industrial applications, and toxic solutions of ethanol are dyed blue to warn against human consumption. Walt and Jesse’s methylamine comes from an industrial chemical supplier as a clear blue liquid in large drums. Traces of the blue dye that survive the process of making methamphetamine would dye Heisenberg’s famous meth blue. I think the primary reason for the coloring is the symbolism and plot usefulness of having Heisenberg’s product be unique, but I’ve heard that Breaking Bad has staff responsible for insuring that the chemistry in the show is possible. Maybe this was what they considered when choosing blue for the color of the meth.

    • Thanks Cameron, a great observation and comment. However, I do wonder whether an industrial solution of methylamine would be coloured in the same way given the purity expectations of chemical manufacturers? While ethanolic solutions of different things sold in the hardware store might be coloured, this colouring would be unnecessary for research and industry clients who have appropriate training, procedure, and OH&S. Nonetheless, an interesting possibility. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Harvey says:

    Well if you read Uncle Fester’s book you know that a P2P cook will yield a mixture of the good meth that you want and the bad meth that’s lame enough to be sold as a decongestant. But Walt says to Victor in the lab that his method is chirally selective or something like that, he’s clearly invented a new process. to get the pure stuff with the precursors the old school bikers used. It explains why Walt’s meth and production process is so special, it’s not just that he does what everybody else does and better, he used his knowledge as a chemistry pro to come up with something all his own, which is why he’s so protective of it.

  7. Non-chemically inclined Biblical Studies Major says:

    I’m pretty sure that it’s supposed to be a reference to using a Birch reduction for the synthesis of methamphetamine. The Birch reaction (the one that requires ammonia and lithium) has an intense royal blue color due to the solvated electron, after formation of the electride salt of lithium+ammonia. Any leftover reagent will evaporate off to form a salt with confers a blue color even with extremely small (<.1%) amount as impurity.

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    • Thanks for reading, glad that the post was helpful.

      • wutwut says:

        That’s a bot, ignore it.

        Good set of posts, by the way. Is there any speculation on how Walt would generate anything other than racemic product by his route? It would need to involve a chiral reagent in the reductive amination step.

        • Thanks for your comment.

          As you point out, it’s not clear how Walt achieves stereoselectivity (i.e. producing only the active isomer of methamphetamine). I don’t know the answer to your question without doing further research. It’s maybe plausible that there might be chiral reagents that could achieve something like this. However, at least initially, it seems unlikely that Walt would be able to get his hands on sophisticated chiral reagents, let alone develop a novel approach of his own. I’m sure the Breaking Bad science consultants would have been aware of this problem but were willing to let it slide. As long as Walt’s exact method remains a mystery, we can only speculate.

          For readers who are unfamiliar with some of these terms, head to “Handedness and the one who knocks” for a discussion of stereoisomers and chirality: http://heisenbergschemistry.com/2012/06/14/handedness-and-the-one-who-knocks/

  9. Tkleespies says:

    I wonder if the blue meth was invented to set up the wonderful montage in S5E8 set to “Crystal Blue Persuation.”

  10. Blueprint says:

    I’ve read through several essays and articles. I remember seeing something on Diazo but please forgive me if I’m way off base here. Chemistry intrigues me.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure what role diazo compounds would have but if you have a link it would be interesting to read more about it.

      • Blueprint says:

        Can’t remember if this was it or not(also diazonium salts and oxime can’t remember) it has been awhile… Also after skimming through tonight these two things rang bells.
        the Hinsberg test and then the Simons reagent.

        http://www.zoklet.net/bbs/archive/index.php/t-133954.html

        http://www.zoklet.net/bbs/showthread.php?t=135885

        • The forums you have shared appear to be discussing potential ways to produce phenyl-2-propanone (often referred to as P2P). P2P can be reacted with methylamine to produce methamphetamine, which is the strategy Walt adapts to produce his “sky blue” meth in the show.

          One of the forum contributors mentions the possibility of producing P2P by a reaction between phenylacetaldehyde and diazomethane. However, it’s not clear to me how this approach would give rise to a blue contaminant. Also, as Derek Lowe details, diazomethane is difficult to work with:
          http://pipeline.corante.com/archives/2008/04/30/how_not_to_do_it_diazomethane.php

          I was not familiar with the Hinsberg test or the Simon’s test. Both appear to be tests for distinguishing between different types of amines (i.e. compounds that include a nitrogen atom that is attached to one, two or three carbon atoms). The Simon’s test produces a blue colour for amines like methamphetamine where the nitrogen is attached to two carbon atoms and one hydrogen. The Hinsberg test is not based on colour changes.

          In this way, the Simon’s reagent can be used to help characterise (detect) methamphetamine but it is not used as a way to produce methamphetamine. This suggests that the Simon’s test does not account for the blue colour of Walt’s meth (even if Walt did use the test he would surely perform it on a small sample of his batch rather than unnecessarily contaminating the whole batch).

          There is a brief discussion of the Simon’s test in the following thesis by Brigitte Bruijns:
          http://www.science.uva.nl/onderwijs/thesis/centraal/files/f767004023.pdf

  11. Not Ur Mom says:

    At one point, if I’m not mistaken, Walt tells somebody his meth is “the most chemically stable product on the market.” I was hoping this article would explore the idea that the “contaminant” that gave Walt’s meth it’s blue color somehow gave it a longer shelf life (or something akin to stability). Any thoughts on what would do that?

    • As far as I know methamphetamine is stable under normal conditions. One way to find about the stability of a chemical compound is to look up the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). If you look up the MSDS for (+)-methamphetamine hydrochloride (which is the salt of the most active form of methamphetamine) you will see that it is stable when stored in dry and cool conditions. My view is that it would be unnecessary to add any kind of stabiliser to the methamphetamine.

  12. Thanks to everyone who has read this post and made a comment. Unfortunately due to other commitments I don’t have any more time to respond to or moderate further comments.

    To summarise my view, while it is possible to speculate about the identity of the blue contaminant in Walt’s meth, the blue colour has more to do with storytelling than chemistry.

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