If Breaking Bad were about methane instead of meth

The year is 2042. Walter White is a struggling high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He lives with his wife and teenage son. Shortly after turning fifty years old, Walter is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. To take his mind off things, he decides to go on a ride-along with his brother-in-law Hank, who is an enforcement agent for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In response to rampant natural disasters and climate disruptions, Hank and the EPA are aggressively enforcing new rules that limit global warming pollution.

During the ride-along, Hank vents to Walt about the “knuckleheads” who have the “chutzpah” to violate federal environmental law. He touts the EPA’s newest move to curb climate change: a national ban on producing fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), except from a handful of highly regulated facilities.

Hank also explains that the EPA is cracking down on pollution from livestock farms, where methane gas (CH4) from cow manure, burps, and farts have long contributed to global warming. He informs Walt that a molecule of methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) at trapping heat over a 20-year period. Under the new EPA regime, farms must avoid or capture all methane emissions.

In spite of the EPA’s ban on methane pollution, agency surveillance drones have detected high concentrations of methane at an old farm outside Albuquerque. Heading to the location, Hank is hopeful they can find the culprits and make a methane bust.

U.S. EPA enforcement agent Hank Schrader (right), joined by his colleague Steve and brother-in-law Walter White. Hank hopes to make a methane bust at a farm outside Albuquerque. (Image: AMC)

Upon arriving at the farm, Hank spots a series of rusted cylindrical tanks. The decrepit equipment appears to be part of a biodigester system — a commonplace farm technology that processes manure in closed tanks.

Cows stare back at Hank’s EPA van; a decrepit biodigester system is seen in the background. (Image: EPA)

In general, biodigesters are good for the environment. By processing manure in closed tanks, a biodigester prevents methane pollution. Open manure piles, by contrast, release methane directly to the atmosphere. In addition, by fostering bacterial activity in oxygen-starved conditions, a biodigester produces a methane-rich biogas (“biomethane”) that can be captured and used as a substitute for fossil-derived natural gas.

But this particular farm’s biodigester is clearly not realizing its environmental promise, nor does it have a valid EPA permit to operate. Hank observes that the ramshackle biodigester is “a piece of shit” that’s leaking heaps of methane (rather than capturing it) — making the system “about as useful as a toilet bowl with bullet holes.”

Hank and his colleague Steve leave the van to investigate further. Walt stays behind, where he soon catches sight of a 20-something male crawling out of a wooden shed and fleeing on foot. Walt is shocked to recognize the man. They make eye contact. Walt lets out a hushed, incredulous gasp: “Oh my god….Pinkman?” Pinkman, peeved that he’s been seen, signals for Walt to stay quiet. He speeds away in a beat-up red Chevy.

Jesse Pinkman, fleeing the scene of an EPA methane bust, signals for Walt to stay quiet — before speeding away in a beat-up red Chevy (Image: AMC).

That night, Walt visits Jesse Pinkman’s house. It comes to light that Walt was Pinkman’s high school chemistry teacher and was able to track down his address. Walt assures Jesse that no one is looking for him; he’s just curious about Jesse’s involvement with methane, surmising that there’s money to made.

Jesse reluctantly confirms what he’s been up to at the dilapidated farm: using a biodigester to convert manure into biomethane, and selling it by the truckload to black-market dealers — as a substitute for natural gas. Jesse says his product fetches a handsome price, thanks to EPA restrictions on fossil fuels that have made natural gas scarce.

Walt interrupts and sternly lectures Jesse: “God damn it, Pinkman. The problem is that your biodigester is crap. You’re producing only a trickle of usable biomethane, while the rest of your system is leaking methane — a super-potent greenhouse gas, going straight into the atmosphere. You’re a criminal polluter, Jesse, and the EPA is onto you.”

“No shit, Mr. White! What do you care, anyway?”

“I may be able to help you, Jesse. I mean, you know the business….and I know the chemistry. I’m thinking maybe you and I could…partner up. And we’d do the chemistry my way — the right way. ”

Walt tracks down his former high school chemistry student Jesse Pinkman. He proposes that the two of them partner up to cook methane. (Image: AMC)

Skeptical and mildly amused, Jesse mocks Walt’s proposal: “You, Mr. White? You want to cook methane? You and me?”

“That’s right. And we do the chemistry like professionals — no manure, no shoddy equipment, no methane leaks, no getting caught. We do it my way, in a lab. Either that….or I turn you in.”

A few days later, Walt and Jesse cook their first batch of methane together. They cook in a run-down Winnebago in the New Mexican desert. Walt uses equipment that he’s poached from his chemistry classroom. And he introduces Jesse to a completely different way of producing methane — in the form of crystals.

Walt and Jesse cook their first batch of “crystal methane” in a run-down Winnebago, retrofitted with solar panels to help fuel chemical reactions. (Image based on: Ryan Thompson/Shutterstock.com)

First, Walt shows Jesse how to synthesize methane via the Sabatier process (a catalytic reaction between hydrogen and carbon dioxide), and then demonstrates how to trap the gas within ice-like crystal pellets. Walt describes the final product as pure “methane hydrate” — a solid substance that when heated can release a huge amount of methane gas (160 times the volume of the crystal pellet it’s trapped in). Jesse is astonished by the appearance and purity of the pellets, dubbing them “crystal methane.” He proclaims Mr. White a “goddamn artist” and raves about how easy it will be to sell the product.

Ice-like pellets of methane gas hydrate, or “crystal methane.” When heated or burned, one pellet can release a volume of methane gas equivalent to 160 times the volume of the solid pellet. (Image: USGS)

Walt humbly replies to Jesse’s praise of the product: “Well, thanks Jesse. I’m glad it’s acceptable. But it’s actually just basic chemistry. I mean, the Sabatier Reaction is at least a century old, and Elon Musk has been using it for years on Mars to produce rocket fuel. In any case, making methane in a lab stinks a lot less than stirring up cow shit. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to stay under the EPA’s radar.”

Bullish about the new crystal product, Jesse sets off to market a sample of it to possible buyers. He starts by visiting a pair of cousins who service natural-gas appliances and vehicles across the Southwest. The cousins burn a crystal methane pellet to test it. They’re impressed with the steady flow of gas, but suspect that “little punk-ass” Jesse didn’t cook it. They demand that Jesse reveal where he got the crystals. Under duress, Jesse leads the two cousins to the cook-site in the desert.

Prospective buyers burn a pellet of crystal methane to test its purity. (Image: U.S. DOE)

As the cousins’ car pulls up to the site, one of them gets suspicious that Walt is an undercover EPA agent. They accuse Jesse of setting them up. The cousins threaten to kill both Walt and Jesse. Walt pleads with them: he proposes that if the cousins let him and Jesse live, he’ll teach them how to cook crystal methane. The cousins accept the offer.

To avoid getting killed, Walt offers to teach a pair of black-market methane distributors how to cook crystal methane. (Image: AMC)

Inside the Winnebago, Walt starts showing the cousins how to mix chemicals. In a desperate effort to escape the situation, Walt adds chlorine to a methane-filled reaction vessel, then exposes it to an open flame — triggering a violent explosion. He darts outside and blocks the door shut, while inside the cousins are burned, suffocated, and killed by toxic hydrogen chloride gas. Jesse and Walt put on gas masks, speed away in the Winnebago, and dispose of the cousins’ dead bodies.

To escape a tense encounter with black-market methane distributors, Walt triggers an explosive reaction between methane and chlorine (Source: Giphy based on YouTube user ChemPics)

After Walt begins cooking crystal methane, his wife Skyler senses that something has changed about him: he’s been acting mysteriously, as if trying to hide something. Skyler does some sleuthing and figures out that Walt has been hanging out with a deadbeat named Jesse Pinkman. Walt, in attempt to hide the truth about his black-market methane production, concocts a false story: he claims he’s been growing pot for himself, and that Jesse supplies him with illegal pesticides to make the pot grow faster.

An upset Skyler tracks down Jesse and forcefully confronts him about being a pot-pesticide dealer. She tells him that her brother-in-law is an EPA enforcement agent, and that this is Jesse’s one and only warning to stop selling illegal pesticides to Walt.

Misled by Walt, his wife Skyler warns Jesse to stop selling marijuana pesticides to her husband. (Image: AMC)

Still concerned about Walt’s confession of pesticide use, Skyler asks her sister Marie (Hank’s wife) some vague questions about the safety of pesticides. Marie mistakenly infers that Walt and Skyler’s son, Walt Jr., is experimenting with illegal pesticides. Marie asks her husband Hank to use his bully pulpit as an EPA agent to scare his nephew Walt Jr. straight.

Hank drives Walt Jr. to a polluted beach in Albuquerque, along the Rio Grande, where he shows the kid severe water pollution and scores of dead fish lining the shore. Although Walt Jr. is puzzled why his Uncle Hank has brought him here, Hank sternly warns him that using illegal pesticides is a gateway to causing more serious environmental problems.

Falsely believing that Walt Jr. is using illegal pesticides, Hank uses his bully pulpit as an EPA enforcement agent to scare his nephew straight. (Image: AMC)

Hank puts his entire EPA enforcement team on notice: there are “new players in town” who are making and distributing super-pure crystal methane. Hank describes the “new players” as being of a high skill set. Unbeknownst to Hank, the skilled new player is his brother-in-law Walt — whom we see standing at a bathroom mirror in his underwear, messily brushing his teeth.

Hank tells a roomful of EPA enforcement agents that there are “new players in town” cooking super-pure crystal methane. Unbeknownst to Hank, he is describing his brother-in-law Walt. (Image: AMC)

At a family barbecue, Walt reveals to his family that he has lung cancer. They discuss the situation. To his family’s dismay, Walt is skeptical that expensive medical treatment is worth the cost for a terminal disease like his.

After the harrowing situation in the desert, Walt tells Jesse that he doesn’t want to see him again. So Jesse gets together with his friend Badger and they try to cook crystal methane on their own. The quality of the product, however, is disappointing. Jesse frets that the crystal methane pellets are contaminated by excess water and have the wrong texture; he tells Badger that they need to do better because customers will demand a certain standard of quality.

Jesse and his friend Badger try to try to cook crystal methane on their own without Walt, but the quality of the product is disappointing. (Image: AMC)

Walt reverses his decision about not wanting expensive cancer treatment. He tells his family that he will get treatment after all. Secretly he knows that to pay for the treatment, he’ll need to use revenues from cooking methane. He reunites with Jesse and says that they’ll “have to move our product in bulk now.” Jesse mentions a “badass” gas distributor, named Tuco, who might want to want to buy large shipments of their product.

Jesse takes a chilled case of crystal methane to Tuco for him to sample. Tuco likes how the pellets release gas. However, he ends up violently attacking Jesse and stealing the product, due to a disagreement about the transaction. With Jesse hospitalized, a head-shaven Walt determinedly goes to Tuco’s lair. Face-to-face with Tuco, Walt introduces himself as “Hindenburg.” He demands $50,000 from Tuco: $35,000 to compensate for the product that Tuco stole, and $15,000 for Jesse’s pain and suffering. When Tuco protests, Walt picks up a white pellet that looks like crystal methane, but is actually fulminated mercury. He hurls the pellet to the floor and causes a huge explosion. Rattled, Tuco pays his debts and agrees to purchase two cases of crystal methane the next week.

Walt holds up a white pellet to Tuco and tells him “this is not crystal methane,” before throwing down the chunk of fulminated mercury and causing a violent explosion. (Image: AMC)

Walt reconnects with Jesse and informs him that he made a deal with Tuco to deliver two cases of crystal methane. Jesse mocks the “brilliant business plan,” doubting that they’ll be able to procure enough ruthenium catalyst to produce enough methane. Jesse says he knows some thieves who could steal the necessary amount of ruthenium, but Walt insists they he and Jesse can steal it themselves.

At a family party, Walt and Hank step outside to smoke smuggled Cuban cigars. Hank explains he got the cigars by doing a favor for an FBI friend in Cuba. (A trade embargo between the two countries persists, as relations have permanently soured since a strange sonic attack on US diplomats in Havana in 2017.) Commenting on the illegally imported cigars, Walt mentions that it’s strange how some things are “illegal” while others are “legal” in our society. Hank laughs and replies that a lot of guys in jail talk like that; he notes that sometimes even things that are still legal shouldn’t be: “Friggin’ methane pollution used to be legal…thank God they came to their senses on that one.”

Walt and Jesse produce raw blocks of pure crystal methane (CH4 ● 5.75H2), before slicing it into pellets and selling it to Tuco. (Image: Stern, Kirby, Durham, et al., 2000)

Having stolen enough ruthenium catalyst to do a big cook in Jesse’s basement, Walt and Jesse deliver their shipment of crystal methane pellets to Tuco, who is pleased with the results and pays up immediately.

Walt (under the street name “Hindenburg”) delivers a batch of crystal methane to black-market gas distributor Tuco. (Image: AMC)

The sale of crystal methane to Tuco is successful, but the scene becomes unexpectedly violent when one of Tuco’s henchmen speaks out of turn. A livid Tuco viciously beats the guy to a pulp. Walt and Jesse look on in shock. Once the henchman is bloodied and knocked unconscious, Tuco laughs and tells “Hindenburg” that he’ll see him next week for another batch of crystal.

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All references and images pertaining to Breaking Bad are used in the spirit of Fair Use. I also drew from Season 1 Episode Summaries on the Breaking Bad Wiki, under CC-Share Alike License.

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