3M’s fresh entrance into the natural-gas fuel tank arena demanded testing in the extreme.

Researchers blasted the new tank with rifle shells, tossed it into bonfires, dropped it from towers and tried 22 other ways to get it to explode.

By passing the seemingly crazy safety tests, 3M just earned a coveted safety certification and the right to sell its thinner, lighter fuel tanks to truck fleets looking to switch from diesel fuel to cheaper, cleaner compressed natural gas, or CNG, as it’s known in the industry.

The fuels have different properties and require different systems and equipment.

Maplewood-based 3M Co. is jumping into this market at a hot time. More garbage trucks, semitractor trailers, city buses and small trucks are converting to natural gas tanks in an effort to cut fuel costs.

Natural gas is harvested domestically, so it’s cheaper — generally $1 to $2.50 a gallon, depending on the state. In contrast, diesel will set a driver back $4 a gallon.

So it’s no wonder that natural gas is becoming increasingly popular with companies and consumers alike.

Going forward, 3M will market its fuel tank to corporate fleet operators and to folks buying light and medium-weight trucks. Over time, 3M expects the fuel conversion trend to significantly tap passenger vehicles. When it does, the company will be ready.

“We are enthusiastic about the future of natural gas vehicles and are proud to introduce this tank to help companies take advantage of the benefits of natural gas as a transportation fuel,” said Mike Roman, vice president of 3M’s industrial adhesives and tapes division.

It took 3M three years and millions of dollars to create its new gas tank, which it says is thinner and lighter than models currently on the market. Being thinner allows the tanks to carry about 5 to 10 percent more gas.

Oddly, 3M’s new gas-tank technology morphed from an older and vastly different 3M product — dental fillings.

3M’s scientists built upon its tooth “nano composite” technology. It added specialty resins to create a strong, durable material that could be molded into a fuel tank. 3M’s first model spans 5 feet by 21 inches and is intended to be installed in the back of a pickup truck, right below the rear window.

Eventually other sizes for other types of vehicles will follow, said Rick Maveus, global business manager for 3M’s advanced composites.

Maveus won’t say what prospective sales might be. But he said, “We view it as a sizable attractive market particularly from a global standpoint.”

There are about 150,000 natural gas vehicles in the United States today and roughly 15 million worldwide. “And that is growing [every] year,” Maveus said.

According to Pike Research and the industry trade group Natural Gas Vehicles for America, natural gas vehicles will grow globally by 7.9 percent a year to 19.9 million vehicles by 2016.

Converting a Ford F-250 truck from diesel to natural gas will cost about $10,000 including parts, labor and the tank. 3M officials won’t discuss their tank’s price tag, except to say it’s a “significant part” of the total $10,000 tab.

3M will sell its fuel tank through five companies that specialize in fuel tank conversions. They are: OEM Systems in Oklahoma, Venchurs Vehicle Systems in Michigan, Alternative Fuel Solutions in Pennsylvania, AVS of Salt Lake City and World CNG in Kent, Wash.

Separately, 3M has partnered with Chesapeake Energy Corp. to explore all segments of the U.S. transportation sector.

Recently, both 3M and Andersen Windows and Doors partnered with the Eagan-based hauler Dart Transit to convert the fuel tanks of all the trucks used to deliver their products. The change helps 3M and Andersen capture fuel savings for themselves, officials said.