The Santa Rosa engineer who suffered severe burns on his face and upper torso in a chemical explosion at Agilent Technologies' Santa Rosa campus is an expert in use of the high-tech machine he was working on when the blast occurred, his colleagues said.

Patrick Colbus remained in critical condition Wednesday at a UC Davis Medical Center burn unit in Sacramento. Colbus earned a physics and astronomy degree at Sonoma State University in 2005, while he was working at Agilent.

"He is one of our star graduates," said Lynn Cominsky, who chairs the university's physics and astronomy program.

Colbus is known as "Mr. M.B.E.," a nickname that referred to the molecular beam epitaxy device that he runs for Agilent, said Steve Anderson, an SSU equipment technician. He runs the department labs and has known Colbus for about 10 years.

Colbus earned his degree while working fulltime at Agilent, taking one or two classes at a time, Cominsky said.

"It's very difficult to do all that juggling and he was one of my best students," she said.

Colbus redesigned and refurbished a similar device that he helped develop at Agilent for his capstone project at SSU, Cominsky said.

"You're making new materials by laying down layers of different chemicals," she said.

The Agilent device employs several highly reactive chemicals, including white and red phosphorus, gallium, aluminum powder and arsenic, to produce coatings on integrated circuits.

Word of Colbus' injuries devastated his school colleagues, who said they're familiar with how dangerous the chemicals could be.

"Phosphorous is what they put in grenades," Anderson said. "White phosphorous sticks to you and burns into you. There's nothing worse."

They described Colbus as precise and exact. "He's an engineer," Anderson said.

"If he was in the middle of it, he was probably trying to fix it," Anderson said.

Colbus helped get Agilent to donate surplus equipment and supplies to the university, including an optical table worth about $15,000, Anderson said.

"The adaptive optics department built a whole course on it," he said.