The Earth Mover’s Distance as a Metric for the Space of Inorganic Compositions

10 August 2020, Version 1
This content is a preprint and has not undergone peer review at the time of posting.


It is a core problem in any field to reliably tell how close two objects are to being the same, and once this relation has been established we can use this information to precisely quantify potential relationships, both analytically and with machine learning (ML). For inorganic solids, the chemical composition is a fundamental descriptor, which can be represented by assigning the ratio of each element in the material to a vector. These vectors are a convenient mathematical data structure for measuring similarity, but unfortunately, the standard metric (the Euclidean distance) gives little to no variance in the resultant distances between chemically dissimilar compositions. We present the Earth Mover’s Distance (EMD) for inorganic compositions, a well-defined metric which enables the measure of chemical similarity in an explainable fashion. We compute the EMD between two compositions from the ratio of each of the elements and the absolute distance between the elements on the modified Pettifor scale. This simple metric shows clear strength at distinguishing compounds and is efficient to compute in practice. The resultant distances have greater alignment with chemical understanding than the Euclidean distance, which is demonstrated on the binary compositions of the Inorganic Crystal Structure Database (ICSD). The EMD is a reliable numeric measure of chemical similarity that can be incorporated into automated workflows for a range of ML techniques. We have found that with no supervision the use of this metric gives a distinct partitioning of binary compounds into clear trends and families of chemical property, with future applications for nearest neighbor search queries in chemical database retrieval systems and supervised ML techniques.


Inorganic chemistry
materials informatics
Earth mover's distance

Supplementary materials

emd si


Comments are not moderated before they are posted, but they can be removed by the site moderators if they are found to be in contravention of our Commenting Policy [opens in a new tab] - please read this policy before you post. Comments should be used for scholarly discussion of the content in question. You can find more information about how to use the commenting feature here [opens in a new tab] .
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy [opens in a new tab] and Terms of Service [opens in a new tab] apply.