In recent years, capacitive deionization (CDI) has attracted intensive research due to its environmentally-friendly nature and low power requirement. Although the characteristics of titania (TiO2) and zirconia (ZrO2) are almost the same, ZrO2 has not attracted the same attention since the characteristics of the carbonaceous material need to be modified to enhance its performance as an electrode in CDI cells. In this study, the wettability and electrochemical behavior of activated carbon (AC), as a widely used, effective, and inexpensive material, was distinctively improved by doping with zirconia nanoparticles. The introduced AC/ZrO2 nanocomposite was fabricated using the alkaline hydrothermal method. Investigation of the surface morphology, phase and crystallinity by SEM, TEM, XPS, and XRD demonstrated the successful doping of AC by zirconia nanoparticles. Interestingly, the wettability measurement showed excellent enhancement, since the water contact angles of pristine and doped AC are 45° and 148°, respectively. The electrochemical experiments demonstrated that the synthesized composite (AC/ZrO2) has a specific capacitance of 282.8 F g−1, which is higher than that for AC (207.5 F g−1). Due to the significant improvement in wettability and specific capacitance, the desalination performance and the salt ion electrosorption capacity were also enhanced: 40.4% and 68.5%, and 2.82 and 4.79 mg/g for AC and AC/ZrO2, respectively. Moreover, the introduced AC/ZrO2 revealed 99% remaining desalination retention suggesting high stability. Overall, this study demonstrates ZrO2 is an effective, stable, and environmentally safe material for improving the performance of carbonaceous CDI electrodes.