Is The Fulminated Mercury Scene From Breaking Bad Scientifically Accurate?

Fulminated Mercury – Indirectly responsible for dynamite and directly responsible for extraordinarily dynamic TV scenes is fulminated mercury, an unstable mercury salt of fulminic acid.

Walter White takes up the crystal with great care. This is not meth, he adds as he stares at the dealer holding it. Then, with a thud, he slams it on the ground. A cloud of smoke and flames billows from the room as the window shatter. Glass fragments fly everywhere and people’s ears start to ring afterward.

He explains the crystal’s true nature as “fulminated mercury, a tiny tweak of chemistry” when pressed further.

Pop culture frequently depicts fulminated mercury, also known as Mercury Fulminate, as a go-to improvised bomb that can be prepared in a kitchen, basement, or chemistry lab. Recent television shows like Law & Order and Burn Notice have given it more exposure.

It shot to fame thanks to its role in “Breaking Bad,” but it has since made a notable appearance in a recent action-adventure game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

In this now-iconic TV programme, a chemistry teacher-turned-criminal uses this poison to scare off a drug dealer and escape a sticky position. But is that scene’s chemistry based on actual science, or is it merely Hollywood magic?

Mercury(II) Fulminate (Photo Credit : Daniel Grohmann/Wikimedia Commons)

Mercury(II) fulminate is an ionic compound consisting of mercury and fulminate ions, as suggested by the name. One ion of mercury (Hg2+; hence the II after mercury) interacts with two ions of fulminate (CNO­-) to form Mercury (II) Fulminate.

The +2 charge on Hg is balanced out by the -1 charge (owing to an extra electron) on each of the two CNO­- units. In doing so, they create a molecule with the chemical formula (Hg(CNO)2) that is essentially neutral but very explosive.

So, let’s learn about the background of this explosive substance and try to figure out how it works chemically.

Pitch-black Mercury

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Explosives and fulminates | Fulminated Mercury

Fulminated mercury has been around since the time of alchemy in the 17th century. Cornelius Drebbel and Johann Krunckel, two prominent alchemists, discovered that the combination of silver or mercury with spiritus vini (ethanol) and aqua fortis (nitric acid) produced an explosive mixture.

The production of fulminating platinum, silver, and gold was perfected by chemists in the second half of the 18th century. The carbonates and chlorides of these metals were dissolved in ammonia. Careful drying of the resultant precipitate (in the absence of heat or light). Any kind of heat or contact would cause the resulting powder to detonate.

The explosions were as powerful as a lightning strike. In fact, the word “fulminate” comes from the Latin word for “thunderbolt,” “fulmen.”

Some of these substances, like fulminating gold, were also utilised as weaponry. However, contemporary scientists have discovered that the substance previously known as gold fulminate is not a fulminate since it lacks the CNO­- group. Instead, it is a multi-ionic salt containing ions of ammonium (NH3+), nitrate (NO3-), and chloride (Cl-).

They also attempted a mercury salts ammonia precipitation, but no one was able to successfully separate the element. Or at least such was the case before an English scientist named Edward Charles Howard isolated it in 1800. For the manufacture of mercury fulminate, he also provided a thorough procedure (which by the way, he discovered accidentally).

Ethyl alcohol, mercuric oxide, mercuric fulminate, nitric acid

In reality, Edward was looking up methods of synthesising muriatic acid (HCl). Hydrogen was the first thing he noticed during his investigation. He constructed a test to ensure the accuracy of his new information. He added red mercury oxide to a mixture of ethyl alcohol and nitric acid (his hydrogen and oxygen sources, respectively; at the time, scientists believed that muriatic acid only required oxygen and not chlorine) and stirred the concoction.

He was startled to see his reaction mixture start to bubble and puff forth thick white smoke. When everything finally settled down, he noticed a white precipitate settling to the bottom of his reaction container.

He then added a few drops of sulphuric acid to the crystalline white precipitate. There was an initial effervescence, then a massive explosion. He was so taken aback by the crystals’ explosive potential that he experimented with several different ways of fulminating (detonating) them. As an example, scientists have tried tapping a cold anvil with a hammer after placing a few (3-4) mercury fulminate crystals on it. The hammer and anvil were both dented when a light tap caused an explosion (both of which are solid metal objects).

With spark fireworks(Drpixel), a blacksmith forges molten metal on an anvil.

When hit with a hammer, Mercury Fulminate crystals burst (Photo by Drpixel/Shutterstock).

Edward’s appetite for discovery had not been satisfied by the small-scale experiments (and probably even more dangerous). With the help of his friend John Abernethy, he loaded a rifle with 11 of his invention’s crystals in place of conventional gunpowder. There was such a massive explosion when the trigger was pushed that the gun broke.

The firepower of mercury fulminate, he determined after further testing with impact, heat, and electric spark, was due to its spontaneous combustion.

After he realised his concoction was a powerful explosive, he documented the steps necessary to make mercury fulminate (which I won’t go into detail about for obvious reasons). He advised making no more than 500 grains at a time to prevent massive destruction from any inadvertent combustion of the substance. Commercial producers of mercury fulminate still use a method strikingly identical to Edward Howard’s, even after all these years.

The Fulminant Mercury Structure

When X-ray crystallography was developed, scientists could finally begin to piece together how mercury fulminate was put together. The compound’s identity as a mercury salt of fulminic acid wasn’t established until the 1960s (they share the same skeletal structure). Bonding arrangement and crystal structure of mercury fulminate were discovered in 2007.

This was about two centuries after its discovery. It was finally put to rest by X-ray diffraction, a technique developed in Germany by a team led by Wolfgang Beck and Thomas Klapötke.

Molecular fulminate of mercury is the principal explosive compound. A skeletal formula (StudioMolekuul)
Mercury Fulminate Structure, by StudioMolekuul/Shutterstock.

Hydrochloric acid

Shape of Fulminic Acid

Its structure conceals the key to its explosive character. The fulminate ion (CNO-) is present in both fulminic acid and mercury fulminate, as seen in the picture to the right, with the carbon atom linked to the nitrogen atom by a triple bond and the nitrogen atom attached to the oxygen atom via a single bond. Because of the single connection between the nitrogen and oxygen atoms, fulminated mercury is extremely volatile and can even explode under the right conditions.

BB’s “Fulminating Mercury” Scene

This brings us to our first inquiry: how close to reality did the aforementioned Breaking Bad scene actually be?

The correct response is “yes, to an extent.”

When dropped on the floor, a crystal of mercury fulminate would certainly shatter. However, instead of looking like mercury fulminate, the crystal looked like a huge white crystal of methamphetamine.

The inclusion of colloidal mercury gives commercial-grade crystals their characteristic grey to light brown tint. A crystal as flawless as the one on display could only have been created in a carefully controlled laboratory environment, not in the back of an RV.

It’s really challenging to grow a crystal of that quality. It would be exceedingly vulnerable to even the slightest vibrations and light if someone were to succeed in growing one that large. Changing the crystal’s position would be all that’s needed to set off the explosion.

The bag of crystals was handled forcefully by Walter White in the Breaking Bad scene where he delivers them to the drug dealer.

Neither Walter White’s lab nor his automobile would have been safe enough environments for a crystal of that size.

They did change the chemistry slightly, but the dramatic effect more than makes up for it.

Conclusion

For several battles, mercury fulminate served as the standard explosive detonator. It was utilised by Alfred Nobel himself in the blasting caps that set off his dynamite. That’s right, the accidental innovation of Edward Howard is not only responsible for the dramatic flair of today’s crime thrillers, but also has a hand in the establishment of the Nobel Prize.