Could we have caught Heisenberg?

Before you read SPOILER ALERT – If you haven’t reached SE05E05 of Breaking Bad don’t read this post, it will contain some spoilers.


Stopping Walter White - Season 5 Episode 5 – Dead Freight


One of the more daring stunts enacted by chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White in hit AMC TV series Breaking Bad was the train heist in SE05E05 “Dead Freight.”


In order to have sufficient supply of precursor to make his idiosyncratic blue meth, Walt needed to secure a large quantity of methylamine (1000 gallons). To do this, Jesse hatched a plan to steal the methylamine from a train moving through New Mexico, without anyone knowing. This involved removing the methylamine from the train into a 1000 gallon container and replacing it with 900.24 gallons of water (920 were used in the episode). The only due diligence being performed was that the train was weighed in Long Beach and would be weighed again at terminus in Texas. If there was no difference in weight, the only logical conclusion would be that the Chinese had diluted the batch and short-changed the Texan buyer.


(As mentioned in the episode the reason less water was needed was that water is denser than aqueous methylamine, therefore you wouldn’t need as much to make up the weight lost from removing the 1000 gallons of methylamine.)


How could we have stopped Heisenberg?


We can’t profess to being Sherlock, even super-cop ASAC Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) didn’t clock that Walt was Heisenberg until the final season, but if we were working to investigate the issue of why there was significantly less Methylamine on the train than there should have been; here’s how we would have done it.


The water.


The first clue that something wasn’t right when the methylamine arrived at its destination is that it wasn’t the right concentration. This should have raised a few eyebrows at the methylamine buyer’s end that perhaps their supply chain had a leak…


An isotope analysis of the aqueous methylamine would’ve given our scientists a clue what the problem was. Water from different parts of the world has different amounts of Heavy Hydrogen (a.k.a. Deuterium or just simply “D”) in it – as it turns out, the global variation of Heavy Hydrogen in water is highly location specific. From simply analysing the ratio of Deuterium to Hydrogen in the methylamine it would have been blatantly obvious that water had been added to the methylamine solution. Moreover, it would have been clear that the water was from somewhere else other than where the methylamine was formulated.


Cross-referencing the ‘odd’ deuterium signature of the methylamine from the train with places the train stopped would have told us everything else that we would need. All we would require is a sample of the water from New Mexico that had been added to the methylamine – gaining a sample of Walt’s Water would have put the first nail in the coffin for Walt.


The final nails would have come from analysing the Nitrogen, Carbon and Hydrogen isotope ratios of Walt’s blue meth vs. the methylamine from the train. As both were from the same source, their isotope ratios should be very consistent.


Gotcha Walt.


Knowing Walt and Jesse it’s probable that Walter White would have outwitted us in the end (or worse!). But fraud and illegal activity like this happens on a daily basis around the world. We’re proud to be offering the tools to those that want beat the cheats.

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