The news that an explosion at high-tech federal science lab last month might have been caused by meth production quickly precipitated a string of Breaking Bad jokes. But as became clear at a US District Court in Greenbelt on Friday, this particularly meth lab was nowhere near as sophisticated as Walter White’s. It was small, crude, and pretty much destined to self-destruct.
The explosion in question took place on Saturday, 18 July, around 7:30pm at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). This week, former police officer Christopher Bartley pleaded guilty to trying to make less than five grams of meth using the “shake and bake” method, a hazardous procedure that involves mixing ground-up medicine and chemicals in plastic soda bottles.
Per The Washington Post, here’s how things went down the night of the explosion:
According to facts in the case, as laid out in court, Bartley, who had been a lieutenant with NIST’s internal police force, was on duty the night of July 18 when he slipped into a building on the edge of NIST’s 578-acre [2.3km²] campus. He tried to make meth. It exploded, blowing out four windows at the lab — one travelled 22 feet [6.71m]; another, 33 feet [10m].
The temperature in the room spiked to 180 degrees [82°C], setting off a silent heat alarm. Firefighters and additional police officers responded. They found Bartley with burns on his arm as well as singed eyebrows and hair.
And it didn’t take much poking around to find the telltale signs of meth production:
They searched a nearby dumpster and trash area, finding items consistent with meth-making: a coffee grinder with white residue, Drano crystals, a plastic soda bottle, a gas mask and rubber tubing, according to the case’s statement of facts, which had been agreed to by prosecutors and Bartley.
In Bartley’s car, authorities found notes listing the ingredients and equipment needed to make meth, which is short for methamphetamine, a highly addictive street drug.
The “shake and bake” method typically involves a plastic soda bottle or two bottles connected by tubing. People will often use a coffee grinder to grind medicine tablets containing pseudoephedrine — the methamphetamine reactant that Walter White can’t seem to get his hands on in early episodes of Breaking Bad. Pseudoephedrine is added to the bottle along with ammonium nitrate, lye, and pieces of lithium taken out of batteries.
The meth-maker will then put a cap on the bottle and shake it, creating an explosive reaction that needs to be vented regularly. Shake ‘n bake.
“It’s extremely dangerous,” Caoimhín Connell, a meth-production expert at Forensic Applications Consulting Technologies, told the Post. “You can blow up a house with one bottle, no problem.”
Which is basically exactly happened. Moral of the story folks? Don’t try to make meth like some actor you saw on TV. Especially if all you’ve got to work with are a bunch of cheap plastic soda bottles.
Top image: The NIST Advanced Measurement Laboratory building, via Gail Porter.