The field emission characteristics of carbon nanotubes (CNTs) grown by thermal chemical vapor deposition (CVD) and subsequently surface treated by high-density Ar plasma in an inductively coupled plasma reactive ion etching (ICP-RIE) with the various plasma powers were measured. Results indicate that, after treated by Ar plasma with power between 250 and 500 W, the emission current density of the CNTs is enhanced by nearly two orders of magnitude (increased from 0.65 to 48 mA/cm(2)) as compared to that of the as-grown ones. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and transmission electron microscopy (TEM) were employed to investigate the structural features relevant to the modified field emission properties of CNTs. The SEM images of CNTs subjected to a 500 W Ar plasma treatment exhibit obvious damages to the CNTs. Nevertheless, the turn-on fields decreased from 3.6 to 2.2V/mu m, indicating a remarkable field emission enhancement. Our results further suggest that the primary effect of Ar plasma treatment might be to modify the geometrical structures of the local emission region in CNTs. In any case, the Ar plasma treatment appears to be an efficient method to enhance the site density for electron emission and, hence markedly improving the electric characteristics of the CNTs. (C) 2009 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.