'Breaking Bad:' Can You Really Dissolve a Body in Hydrofluoric Acid?

Test tube beaker
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The pilot episode of AMC's drama "Breaking Bad" had us intrigued, so we tuned in for the second episode to see what our hero, a chemistry teacher named Walt, was going to do. We might be going out on a limb here, but we suspect most chemistry teachers don't keep big jugs of hydrofluoric acid in their labs. Walt apparently kept plenty on hand and brought some hydrofluoric acid to aid in disposing of a body. He told his partner-in-crime, Jesse, to use a plastic bin for dissolving the body, but didn't tell him why. So... Jesse puts the dead Emilio in a bathtub, adds the acid, and proceeds to dissolve the body, the tub, the floor supporting the tub, and the floor below that. Hydrofluoric acid is corrosive stuff.

Hydrofluoric acid attacks the silicon oxide in most types of glass. It also dissolves many metals (not nickel or its alloys, gold, platinum, or silver), and most plastics. Fluorocarbons such as Teflon (TFE and FEP), chlorosulfonated polyethylenene, natural rubber and neoprene all are resistant to hydrofluoric acid.

Hydrofluoric acid is so corrosive because the fluorine ion is highly reactive. Even so, it is not a 'strong' acid because it does not completely dissociate in water.

Dissolving a Body in Lye

It's surprising Walt settled on hydrofluoric acid for his body-disposal plan when the well-known method for dissolving... um... flesh... is to use a base rather than an acid. A mixture of sodium hydroxide (lye) with water can be used to liquefy dead animals such as farm animals or roadkill (with obvious extensions to victims of crime). If the lye mixture is heated to boiling, tissue can be dissolved in a matter of hours. The carcass is reduced to a brownish sludge, leaving only brittle bones.

Lye is used to remove clogs in drains so it could have been poured into a bathtub and rinsed away, plus it is much more readily available than hydrofluoric acid. Another option would have been the potassium form of lye, potassium hydroxide. The fumes from reacting large quantities of either hydrofluoric acid or a hydroxide would have been overwhelming to our buddies from "Breaking Bad." People who dissolve bodies in their homes are likely to become dead bodies themselves.

Why the Strongest Acid Wouldn't Work

You may be thinking the best way to rid yourself of a corpse is to use the strongest acid you can find. This is because we generally equate "strong" with "corrosive." However, the measure of an acid's strength is its ability to donate protons. The very strongest acids in the world do this without being corrosive. The carborane superacids are over a million times stronger than concentrated sulfuric acid, yet they don't attack human or animal tissue.