Mass transport at the sub-nanometre scale, including selective transport of gases, liquids and ions, plays a key role in systems such as catalysis, energy generation and storage, chemical sensing and molecular separation. Highly efficient biological channels in living organisms have inspired the design of artificial channels with similar, or even higher, mass-transport efficiency, which can be used at a much larger scale. In this Review, we highlight synthetic-nanomaterials-enabled channels in the platforms of well-defined nanopores, 1D nanotubes and 2D nanochannels, and discuss their design principles, channel architectures and membrane or device fabrication. We focus on fundamental mechanisms of sub-nanometre confined mass transport and their relationships with the structure–property–performance. We then present the practicalities of these channels and discuss their potential impact on the development of next-generation sustainable technologies for use in applications related to energy, the environment and healthcare.