We’ll need conservation in the short run, but some potential long-range global warming solutions are an environmental Luddite’s nightmare:

“Solar photons can be converted into chemical fuel more resourcefully by breeding or genetically engineering designer plants, connecting natural photosynthetic pathways in novel configurations and using artificial bio-inspired nanoscale systems.”

That’s from an Argonne National Laboratory press release based on a sober assessment of solar technology potentials just published in Physics Today by George W. Crabtree of Argonne and Nathan S. Lewis of Cal Tech.

Read the whole thing for progress in artificial photosynthesis (and the lack of progress on batteries), but here’s the big picture from the article itself:

“There is plenty of room for improvement [in gathering and using solar energy], since photovoltaic conversion efficiencies for inexpensive organic and dye-sensitized solar cells are currently about 10% or less, the conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is less than 1%, and the best solar thermal efficiency is 30%. The theoretical limits suggest that we can do much better” by improving on nature in various ways.

Solar conversion is a young science. Its major growth began in the 1970s, spurred by the oil crisis that highlighted the pervasive importance of energy to our personal, social, economic, and political lives. In contrast, fossil-fuel science has developed over more than 250 years, stimulated by the Industrial Revolution and the promise of abundant fossil fuels. The science of thermodynamics, for example, is intimately intertwined with the development of the steam engine. The Carnot cycle, the mechanical equivalent of heat, and entropy all played starring roles in the development of thermodynamics and the technology of heat engines. Solar-energy science faces an equally rich future, with nanoscience enabling the discovery of the guiding principles of photonic energy conversion and their use in the development of cost-competitive new technologies.”

These technical fixes will alarm both environmentalists who want to attach their pre-existing “stop being so materialistic” feelings to the climate change issue, and those denialists who are committed to exaggerating the costs of dealing with climate change, or even maniacally denying its reality. But they should look pretty good to everyone else.