Multiwall carbon nanotubes grown by plasma enhanced chemical vapour deposition were functionalized by H2O plasma treatment. Through a controlled functionalization process of the carbon nanotubes (CNTs) we were able to modify and tune their chemical reactivity, expanding the range of potential applications in the field of energy and environment. In particular, different oxygen groups were attached to the surfaces of the nanotubes (e.g. carboxyl, hydroxyl and carbonyl), which changed their physicochemical properties. In order to optimize the main operational parameters of the H2O plasma treatment, pressure and power, a Box–Wilson experimental design was adopted. Analysis of the morphology, electrochemical properties and functional groups attached to the surfaces of the CNTs allowed us to determine which treatment conditions were suitable for different applications. After water plasma treatment the specific capacitance of the nanotubes increased from 23 up to 68 F g−1 at a scan rate of 10 mV s−1.