Plasma treatment for producing carbonaceous field emission electron emitters is disclosed. A plasma of ions is generated in a closed chamber and used to surround the exposed surface of a carbonaceous material. A voltage is applied to an electrode that is in contact with the carbonaceous material. This voltage has a negative potential relative to a second electrode in the chamber and serves to accelerate the ions toward the carbonaceous material and provide an ion energy sufficient to etch the exposed surface of the carbonaceous material but not sufficient to result in the implantation of the ions within the carbonaceous material. Preferably, the ions used are those of an inert gas or an inert gas with a small amount of added nitrogen.