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Hydrogenated amorphous carbon films were deposited with and without hydrogen gas dilution in a small dc bias-assisted plasma chemical vapor deposition system. The field emission characteristics were investigated and compared. It was found that the vacuum electron emission with a very low turn-on electric field (∼0.5 V/μm) could be achieved, which is comparable with the value obtained from nitrogen-doped diamond materials. The improvement of field emission property in the present carbon films was tentatively attributed to the field enhancement effect due to the electronic structure inhomogeneity of the carbon films and the reduction of the surface emission barrier due to the hydrogen termination. © 2001 American Institute of Physics.