The chemistry of Payday 2

Payday 2 is a co-op first person shooter available on Steam; you can team up with other players to perform missions such as bank heists, jewelry store robberies, rigging an election, and breaking a former teammate out of jail.  It is my husband’s current time-waster of choice, hence I know much more about this game than I would actually ever want to.

Cover art for Payday2 showing main characters Chains, Dallas, Hoxton, and Wolf
Cover art for PAYDAY 2 showing main characters Chains, Dallas, Houston, and Wolf (l-r)

One of the tasks that you can do on several missions is manufacture meth, and that is the last time I’m going to use that phrase for fear of getting really inappropriate search result hits.

In the game, there are 3 ingredients for the drug: muriatic acid, caustic soda (you have to pronounce in cow-stick soda, too), and hydrogen chloride.  These all sounds really nice and chemical-y, don’t they?  Let’s look at them one by one.

  • Muriatic acid: an older term for hydrochloric acid, also written as HCl.  I have a chemistry minor, but leaned towards the biochem side, so “muriatic acid” sounded vaguely familiar to me, but not enough that I knew what it was offhand.  HCl is strong acid, so in solution it is almost completely dissociated into H+ and Cl- ions.
Bain is giving the players instructions on what to add next.  Glad he sounds so confident…
  • Caustic soda: another name for sodium hydroxide, NaOH.  “Soda” comes from “sodium,” nothing to do with Pepsi.  NaOH is a strong base which almost completely dissociates in water into Na+ and OH- ions.
Screeshots courtesy of my husband…this is not the kind of game I play.
The ingredients in the players’ inventories (bottom left and right) look like little periodic table symbols, but it’s confusing because “Cs” is actually a real element (cesium).

In the game, players have follow a recipe diagram on the wall or to listen to instructions from Bain (though sometimes he’s wrong…) to add the ingredients in the correct order, otherwise the lab blows up.

In reality, all gen chem students know that an acid plus a base makes water and a salt (meaning an ionic compound).  In this case, it makes the most widely known salt, sodium chloride or NaCl, table salt.

HCl(aq) + NaOH(aq) → H2O + NaCl(aq)

If the acid and base solutions are added in equal amounts, you will make pH neutral salty water, as demonstrated in this video:

If you add more acid than base, the resulting solution will obviously be acidic, and vice versa.

Now, if you have some hydrochloric acid and toss in some solid NaOH, you will get a different experience.

This is because the dissolution of NaOH is highly exothermic, meaning it releases heat. Neutralization is also an exothermic reaction.  The heat given off makes everything boil, kind of like a mini-explosion.

In short, strong acids and bases such as muriatic acid and caustic soda can be fairly safe or quite dangerous depending on the circumstances, but they certainly aren’t going to produce any drugs no matter how they are mixed.

Hydrangeas: Chemistry in action

I’ve got some beautiful hydrangeas blooming in my garden right now.  They are one of my favorite flowers, especially because they can be blue, my favorite color.

They are also a fascinating application of acid-base chemistry.  Hydrangeas get their blue color from aluminum, and in acidic soil is it freely available as Al³+ and taken up by the plant; but in basic soil, it is bound up in compounds and therefore not as available for uptake.

Here’s the chemistry for aluminum binding under basic conditions:


Therefore, hydrangeas in acidic soil have blue flowers, and those in basic soil have pink flowers.  So hydrangeas work kind of like a litmus test for you soil, but interestingly the colors are switched from a standard litmus test, where acidic=red and basic=blue.

You can add fertilizers and compounds to your garden soil to manipulate the color of your flowers.  I did not add anything to my hydrangeas, so I got an interesting mix of pink and blue and purplish flowers (sometimes even in the same bloom!)

Think of all the things we learned For the people who are Still Alive

A few days ago, my fellow OWU alum F. Sherwood “Sherry” Rowland passed away.   Dr. Rowland received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1995 for his work on the impact of CFCs in depletion of the ozone layer.  From what I understand, he was a wonderful person as well.  A great loss for the OWU community and the scientific community as a whole.

Read more here.